If Halloween didn’t exist, we wouldn’t even think of inventing it.
On any other day of the year, would any responsible parent allow his or her child to go door-to-door, ringing doorbells and demanding candy from total strangers?
On any other day, would those same parents licence that child to consume all that candy after collecting it?
On any other day, would American moms and dads tacitly encourage their kids to hoard eggs and toilet paper and commit low-level vandalism across the neighborhood, or to enter a dark space and be scared out of their wits by fearsome, bloody ghouls leaping out at them?
I dare say they would not. I certainly hope as much.
Yet on the final evening of October each year, these practices and others become very nearly mandatory in all American homes. Modern Halloween traditions are as hardwired into our culture as those of any other annual observance.
Rarely do we stop to appreciate how very weird and wonderful this is.
As far as our national holidays go, Halloween is probably the most politically incorrect.
More than ever, today’s culture promulgates child safety above all else. Halloween promulgates danger.
Today’s culture promotes nutrition and warns against the evils of junk food in spawning childhood (and adult) obesity. Halloween promotes the idea that he who accumulates the most candy wins.
Today’s culture says, “Be who you really are.” Halloween says, “Dress up as someone else.”
On a good day, the culture values science and reason. Halloween values witchcraft.
In the political realm, Halloween would seem to have something to offend everyone. Liberals must surely take umbrage at the glorification of sugary treats and putting the young in emotionally fraught environments. Conservatives, meanwhile, doubtless view the practice of dolling out candy to other people’s children as the creeping hand of socialism at work. How very frightful, indeed.
Halloween possesses a real edge, however tempered and commercialized, that other popular festivities lack. It is an edge that probably would not withstand the scrutiny of the average school board, say, were it to be proposed as a wholly new concept today. For goodness’ sake: Innocent children subjecting themselves to the idiosyncrasies of their grown-up neighbors? No, that’s far too risky.
As practiced, Halloween is an occasion to get a lot of our basest and most unscrupulous impulses out of our system. To engage in the sort of tomfoolery we otherwise avoid. It is our national guilty pleasure, and that is what makes it so essential.
We need our guilty pleasures, because they help to keep us in line the rest of the time.
It’s the tacit agreement we make with our children and ourselves: Eat your vegetables the rest of the week, and tonight you can gorge on all the Butterfingers and Milky Ways you want. Be a model citizen tomorrow, but tonight, may all hell break loose. Go ahead. We insist.
We should insist. Children need the opportunity to let loose and break the rules every once in a while. If we never give them that chance, the urge to do so will bubble beneath the surface until finally exploding into the open, likely at the wrong moment and in a decidedly unattractive way.
And so Halloween presents as a moderating influence on society, rather than a corrupting one. Who knew?
Naturally, this theory contains holes large enough to fly a broomstick through. For one, not all children (or adults) can be depended upon to eat their vegetables between November 1 and October 30. As well, a great deal of young folks can hardly be bothered to wait for one pre-arranged moment to misbehave.
In this way and others, the real problem with Halloween is not that it encourages uncommonly bad behavior, but rather that it encourages behavior that is completely typical. That it reflects Americans not on their worst days, but on their average days.
The ideal, then, is to ensure a tension persists. To live such that Halloween remains the exception to the rule, both in theory and in practice. To make certain its traditions of mischief and sugar highs remain an affront to the enlightened world, not its standard operating procedure.
Like Austin, Texas, let us keep Halloween weird.