A New Look at Halloween: who loves it and why?

It’s Halloween, the time to celebrate death. ghosts, goblins, vampires, and zombies. It’s the time you get to be someone or something else.

For me, it’s the holiday when costumed strangers show up uninvited and demand some form of extortion before they go away. Whatever happened to the “tricks” part?

Living as I do in a remote part of Vermont’s Green Mountains, I no longer have these ransom-demanders dressed as Dollar Store ghosts or witches or pop-culture-icons-of-the-moment knocking on my door, interrupting my solitude, and mutely expecting me to contribute to their plastic pumpkin. I’m relieved. I’m also in a distinct minority.

For the record, this was going to be a post on the way Halloween celebrates the porousness of the boundary between life and death. (I would have found a more down-to-earth way to say that) — you know, ghost, goblins, etc. But the more I read, the more I seemed to be the only person who cared. What has come out, instead, seems to be a post on who loves this holiday and (more importantly) why. I certainly never would have guessed.

Who is keeping this holiday alive?

Alive it surely is. A 2012 article in USA Today, Scary! Halloween’s been hijacked by adults, tells us that over 70 percent of adults are now celebrating Halloween each year, though they don’t necessarily go Trick or Treating; they go to parties or parades.

That has only grown in the years since. In a 2017 online article from CNBC, Here’s how much people your age are spending on Halloween, Americans were about to spend $15 billion (BILLION).  And it’s the millennials who are leading the charge, spending on average $183 per person compared to $23 per baby boomer.

 

From the cnbc.com article.

It’s always been surprising to me that this holiday is so popular, even when my kids were small (especially when they were small). First, I was really terrible at making costumes (I could cut out a pair of eye holes in a sacrificial sheet; that was about it). And then we’d all suffer from the inevitable sugar buzz that followed.  My sons limit their children to one piece of candy a day. It gets them practically past Christmas. I never thought!

Fortunately, (I guess) I seem to have not passed my disdain on to my kids. And they both married women who love the holiday. Here’s Jon with his daughters this year. At least I assume that’s Jon.

 

photo credit, Jenna Ackerman 2019

 

In my mind, this is similar to my cluelessness on why so many want to get drunk.  What is the appeal?  I just don’t get it. Or didn’t until I began researching for this post. Hang in there.

But why?  What is the appeal? What I’ve learned is not encouraging.

Historian Nicholas Rogers, in his book Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, teaches us how the holiday emerged from the Celtic festival of Samhain, picked up elements of the Christian All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, arrived in North America as an Irish and Scottish festival, and evolved into an unofficial but large-scale holiday by the early 20th century.

First brought to the US with Irish and Scots immigrants, treats and doorbells were added in the ’30s and ’40, though they weren’t the treats we recognize today. “Coins, nuts, fruit, cookies, cakes, and toys were as likely as candy,” wrote Samira Kawash in “How Candy and Halloween Became Best Friends,” in The Atlantic in 2010.  By the 1950s, she tells us, “it had become a night for all children.”

My children were trick or treating in the mid to late 1970s, as the urban legends of razor blades in the apples or rat poison in the Rice Krispy treats were spreading. We soon joined the legions of concerned parents examining each tiny, wrapped candy bar at the end of the night for any signs of tampering.

Historians and sociologists tell us these “murderous halloween” rumors at the time reflected society’s anxiety and fear of strangers. They also tell us that Halloween has long been a holiday embraced particularly by those folks who felt on the fringes of the larger society; the Irish immigrant was only the first example. Children have long been considered less than full citizens and, since the late 1970s, the LBGTQ community has adopted Halloween as particularly well-suited for them.

And now we have the millennials (those now in their 20s and 30s). But why? If the sociologists are right (and I like to think they are; it helps keep my world spinning in the same direction), what do millennials share with Irish immigrants, children, and gays? How do they fit this model of halloween-for-the-outliers?

Linus Owens, Associate Professor of Sociology, Middlebury College, VT in an online blog called TheConversation.com says this:

Traditional markers of adult responsibility and independence -– family, career, home ownership –- have either been delayed or abandoned altogether, by choice or necessity. Transitions to adulthood have become uncertain, drawn out and complicated.

Young adults I’ve spoken with often identify this as their favorite part of the holiday -– the chance to be, at least for a night, whatever they wish to be.

They aren’t able, in real life, to be what they wish to be? They feel on the outskirts of the larger society? That, for me bodes ill for the immediate future.

How about you? What’s your take on Halloween? 

P.S. A reminder:

Want to help bring an end to the bi-annual jet lag we all suffer? Visit End Daylight Saving Time (yes; that’s my rant for this year). 

24 Responses

  1. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    I loved Halloween as a kid, and in some ways, still do, although now it is as much about seeing my girls enjoy it as it is for me. (I feel no strong pull to go to parties or dress up, etc., although I do enjoy helping the girls decorate the house and yard as well as some of the traditions, like carving pumpkins, which we actually did just tonight). I’m not sure what the appeal is, exactly. Something about the time of year, for sure — the falling leaves, the crispness of the air, the colors of the sky, the shorter days, etc. — but that can’t be all. I suppose there’s simply something alluring about probing darker themes in a fun, innocent and non-threatening way, like watching a scary movie or reading a mystery or thriller, knowing it’s only fiction.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Tim, welcome home. (Saw the pictures your brother posted to Facebook). It sounds like you welcome Halloween the way my sons do. I can imagine it’s nice to have a tradition that you look forward to. Probably if my Halloween memories weren’t so fraught with disappointment, I’d participate more readily. I seem to be taking more pleasure lately in taking the curmudgeonly view of these things. Though I doubt I’d spend any money on it.
      Janet Givens recently posted…A New Look at Halloween: who loves it and why?My Profile

  2. Clive Pilcher
    | Reply

    A very interesting piece, Janet. It is indeed a worrying reflection on today’s society that the millennials – those who might be expected to be the drivers of the future – see Halloween as an opportunity to regress to their childhood. It makes me wonder what is missing from their lives that they feel the need to do this. In the meantime, the corporate juggernaut keeps rolling on and hoovering in the cash.
    Clive Pilcher recently posted…Halloween – My Annual ReminderMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Clive, I remember my early 20s, also feeling quite uncertain about my approaching adulthood. When would I actually become an adult, I wondered. It happened once I had kids. But if millennials are putting off having children, are unable to find the career they aspired to, unable to buy into the housing market, I can see how they’d continue to feel on the outside. But donning a halloween costume as a way to forget that? That does feel a bit of a leap, even for my own inner sociologist.
      Janet Givens recently posted…A New Look at Halloween: who loves it and why?My Profile

  3. Merril D Smith
    | Reply

    Good morning, Janet. I have similar feelings. I was never good at costumes for myself or kids. I’m creative, but just not in that way. I think the origins of the holiday are interesting, and I like horror (not the gory blood-splatter type), but I guess, in general I’m not into big celebrations of any holiday. I like gatherings with family and food. I’d prefer an autumn festival over a Halloween party.
    Merril D Smith recently posted…All Hallows’ EveMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I was just telling Woody about one Halloween party I attended back in the early 90s that I actually enjoyed. I dressed up as a witch; just had to buy the hat and the fingernails. Maybe I added a funny nose; not sure. But I can remember thinking it was fun. That was it; one year. No candy that year either. I think it was feeling the social pressure to have my kids have great costumes. Poor things; it was not my forte. But my older son still remembers us stopping the car to move a turtle off the road when he was two.
      Janet Givens recently posted…A New Look at Halloween: who loves it and why?My Profile

  4. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Hallowe’en was a major/minor holiday in the Mennonite Longenecker family. Odd, because straight-laced Mennonites weren’t supposed to dress-up like heathens (we did) or spend money on costumes (we didn’t!). As you know, one of the chapters in my memoir is headed with a photo of an elaborate costume of tissue paper my mom made on her sewing machine: expensive in time, not money.

    Hallowe’en now is a family gathering with the adults eating and socializing at my daughter’s (or son’s) house and the kids trick or treating. Spending millions of dollars on costumes and decorations blows my mind. The reasons you mentioned in your post make sense. One year (for pennies) I pulled out 3-4 sections of paper toweling, which I put over my head as a disguise and added my glasses. No one was fooled.

    In a week or two, I’ll mention you in a post and your take on DST with links. 🙂
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Tell Us Your Hair StoryMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I had no idea Mennonites embraced Halloween. Thanks for that, Marian. Did you give out candy? Have to do tricks? I was actually taught I had to perform some trick in order to “earn” my piece of candy. Have no idea what I ever did. Woody tells me the “trick” part was vandalism actually, so it was pure extortion. But he grew up in Connecticut, so there’s that. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…A New Look at Halloween: who loves it and why?My Profile

  5. Pamela Wight
    | Reply

    I have never liked Halloween nor have I understood the passion some have for the “holiday” (and in NE, I read where a great percentage of people noted that Halloween is their favorite ‘holiday’). Since when did Halloween become a HOLIDAY? And as you ask — why? As a child I found it excruciating to have to dress up (usually an old white sheet with holes for the eyes) and stumble down the dark streets to knock on doors to receive candy I didn’t like (I was quite particular with my candy, which I seldom had at home – Lifesavers and Good & Plenty didn’t make a hit with me). Then when it was time to dress up my own kids for Halloween, I had to make myself get into it. To this day my kids think I was quite unimaginative (ie, same costume for both of them each year, until fortunately my son decided he hated Halloween). I think the young parents of today want a reason to party. They work (too) hard, and they are given a day to act/feel/dress up again. Perhaps that’s the appeal. Me? I’ll stay home and eat a piece of my pumpkin pie after I’ve taken a photo of the grandkids in their elaborate (store bought – ugh) costumes. 🙂

  6. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I always learn so much reading your posts. I’m not a big fan of Halloween. Candy or not, I just don’t see the draw. Fortunately, I didn’t pass my “stick-in-the-mudishness” to my son. He and Kayley are dressing up as fishermen this year, and Luna, my one-year-old granddaughter, is going to be a tuna that they’ve caught. Kayley is incredibly handy with a sewing machine. I can hardly wait to see them all dressed up in their finery. But that’s the extent of my delight.
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…The BoondocksMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      That sounds adorable. My son is going to a Halloween party as a bird watcher this year (which he is; costume should be easy); his wife is going as an owl. I’m so glad I’m out of it; coming up with one costume was bad enough, never mind ones that all fit together. (Yours still sounds adorable). Thanks for stopping. Good you’ll share pictures on FB.
      Janet Givens recently posted…A New Look at Halloween: who loves it and why?My Profile

  7. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    Interesting research. I like Halloween because it’s the only night of the year when this neighborhood seems friendly. Kids and adults talk to each other, and compliments abound regarding costumes and decorations. Usually people around here are standoffish, but once the adults get a few drinks in them there’s a vibe of silliness and mellowness. Somehow this must dovetail into your research about how wearing costumes allows someone to be more of who they are?
    Ally Bean recently posted…I’m Not A Fish, But Know How They Must Feel In Their BowlsMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh dear. So sorry to hear about your unfriendly neighborhood. Interesting hypothesis that our costumes reflect our sense of who we really are. Or who we want to be or wish we could be. Something. So, will you dress up like a fish this year, Ally?
      Janet Givens recently posted…A New Look at Halloween: who loves it and why?My Profile

  8. Bette Stevens
    | Reply

    Enjoyed the article, Janet. As for me, I Halloween! I usually put on kitty or witch headgear and a mask to greet the few Trick Or Treaters that knock at our door. It’s fun to see Halloween through the eyes of our neighborhood kids and interact with them in costume. Fortunately, civic groups provide parties and fun for our rural kids as well. It’s just plain fun!

  9. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Most Mennonites didn’t embrace Hallowe’en, but our family was different as I mention in memoir. No we didn’t perform tricks, but then, unlike Woody, we didn’t grow up in Connecticut!

  10. Hara Allison
    | Reply

    Halloween is my least favorite Holiday. I just don’t get it.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I love the diversity represented among my commenters here, Hara. Thanks for adding your voice to the mix.

  11. Joan Z Rough
    | Reply

    When I was a kid I loved Halloween. I loved getting dressed up in costumes of ghosts, goblins, or whatever. When I had kids, it was fun getting them in costume and taking them out to trick or treat. I did not then and do not now love the CANDY.
    When my kids grew up, I loved watching other kids come to my door and enjoyed seeing their costumes. At our last address, we had tons of kids at the door, and I grew very tired of it very quickly. I also did not like giving out candy and started going to a party store and getting little trinkets, like yo-yos, balloons to be blown up and such. The crowd for the most part loved it. Now I live in a much more quiet area and am giving out organic apples this year. Last year we only had three visitors. This year we may have none, as the weather report is for severe thunder storms. We’ll see! Fall is my favorite season but Halloween is just another day.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Sounds like you really got into it in your day, Joan. And how nice to hear apples are again on the permitted list. That bodes well, I think.

  12. Lisa Harris
    | Reply

    I have similar feelings. I’ve never been into as much as others have. At the moment, I’m waiting for the first “ransom-demanders” to ring my doorbell. Since I’m home and don’t want to hide away in my bedroom all evening, I had to run up to the drugstore and get a bag of candy — one that I won’t eat after the trick-or-treaters have gone home, mind you! I do love seeing the little ones and am easily entertained by everyone’s creativity.
    Lisa
    https://midlifeinbloom.com/
    Lisa Harris recently posted…Casual Neutrals and Slow-Fashion AccessoriesMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      You’re having the same challenges I once had, Lisa. “How much of this candy will I eat tomorrow?” “Can I hide?” So glad those days are over for me. Thanks for stopping by.

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