If you were an alien and came down to observe us Earthlings for a week at the end of October, would Halloween blow your little green mind?
Here in the U.S., Halloween blends the Celtic Samhain festival of autumn harvest, the Christian All Hallows’ (or Saints’) Eve, and modern consumerism into a heady mix of candy-binging that culminates a month-long ritual of planning, shopping, and decorating with lots and lots of plastic. Also, some fundamentalists refuse to allow their children to participate in it, and in some places it’s an excuse for devilry (“Hell Night”) or even arson.
It should make sense that anthropologists can’t wait to get their fangs in such rich material. Cindy Dell Clark doesn’t disappoint in her study of six- and seven-year-olds and their parents at the turn of the 21st century. “Halloween brings about labyrinths of meaning in which evil and mortality are condoned and foregrounded; such anomalies leave children to actively work out twisted inversions of meaning.” Meanwhile, adults “seem to be bent not simply on shaping children, but on other sorts of symbolic missions in which children and elders have mutual influence.”
For younger children, Halloween can actually be frightening: they are supposed to do the things they aren’t allowed normally, like talk to strangers and make demands of adults (“trick or treat”). Children are supposed to act like adults, adults like children, costuming and play-acting in a one-night-a-year inversion of roles, ideally rewarded by obscene amounts of candy for the kids and who-knows-what for adults.
One of Clark’s points is the nostalgia adults feel for this autumnal evening ritual. It was a lot more innocent back then, evidently, although whenever exactly “then” was may be debatable. The 1970s, for instance, saw a surge in stories about “Halloween sadism.” The ghoulish Joel Best and Gerald T. Horiuchi reviewed such news stories from 1958-1983, and came to the conclusion that threats about poisoned or booby-trapped treats were “greatly exaggerated.” They detail how such urban myths–I mean, how could somebody actually hide a razor in an apple, anyway?–are created and perpetuated in times of social stress and anxiety.
So don’t you just want to take a break and put your freak on? Undead folklorist Jack Kuglemass gives us a history and ethnography of the Greenwich Village Halloween parade, “New York’s answer to Mardi Gras,” which is worth reading for its description of attendees alone.