October 31st is America’s curious anomaly. On October’s last day, as trees defoliate and nature ebbs towards the deadness of winter, parents mark the day by lifting prohibitions. From sugar treats to stranger visiting, what is usually forbidden falls within kids’ reach. That day children lampoon adults, dressing up in roles of mature power (princesses, firemen, astronauts, pirates); kids arrive at strangers’ doorsteps and ceremonially threaten the grown-ups within with a veiled threat, “trick or treat.” Without further ado adults hand over candy, normally a controlled substance in children’s lives.
Remarkably moms and dads don’t resent the entailed power inversion. They support it – helping with children’s costumes and following close enough behind as young ones ring doorbells. Parents say they enjoy seeing their kids range around the neighborhood to collect booty. On this festival of inversion, when the small powerless become mighty and the big powerful do their bidding, children feel “in charge.” Adults are visibly pleased that “children get to be big for a day.”
Beneath the license to demand booty, there’s a catch. Six- and seven-year olds whom I interviewed shortly after Halloween pointed out that in the very front yards and doorways where kids ascend to power are decorations of macabre themes. Mature neighbors delight in festooning the neighborhood in décor that is scary – from spiders’ webs to witches. Ghosts in the trees, skeletons on the porches, vampires and mummies and even jack-o lanterns at doorways seem formidably frightening to kids under eight. Some adults serve their treats in coffin-shaped or skull-shaped serving dishes. Some, old enough to know better usually, hide in the bushes wearing monster-like masks and jump out shouting when tots walk by. Children’s ascendance at Halloween comes at a price: being scared of the icons of danger and death that are set in their paths and even decorate first and second grade classrooms or homes.
Adults seem oblivious to the fact that children eight and younger literally think of death when they see a grave or gravestone or blood. On the contrary, dads and moms steeped in the Halloween spirit take children to commercial haunted houses or rides (where I did fieldwork). On such outings, icons of death and danger entertain adults, but scare little kids; small children across my three years of fieldwork were seen to cower and cling to parents for safety – even to cry hysterically.
Boy, 7, on visiting a haunted house: There was this guy sitting in a chair … It was a guy who got his eyes covered … he was like a ghost or something and he always … talked funny … And then he had skeleton hands. And then he talked and stuff. And it was like whoa! It gave me and my friend Andy a heart attack.
Girl, 7, recalling a haunted house: I think I went to a haunted house at a campground. It’s scary and things jump out at you when you step, and sometimes the steps are really old … It was not fun because I was little … It’s freaky … You think the step’s going to break.
Boy, 7, remembering a haunted house: When we went in there [it] was like scary stuff, and then we went and I saw like … yucky blood, and there was a guy from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he [came at me] before I went to him. I ran fast.
The fun of Halloween to adults is playful mockery, staging a cartoonish version of gruesome, life-negating motifs. But when parents share the same themes with children under eight, youngsters tend to experience these same motifs with apprehension. Common Halloween decorations of ghosts or vampires on neighbor’s doors were regarded with genuine fear. When I showed children pictures of a haunted house or ghost or witch during interviews, they often turned them upside down or hid them under furniture. These emblems are representations of real threats in children’s eyes, not caricatures divorced from their inherent dark meanings.
Why would adults create a death-evocative landscape — purportedly for entertaining children so young they’d be kept home from a funeral, ordinarily? Why would fathers escort their children in the dark to homes of strangers to collect candy deemed unsafe until inspected? Why would classroom teachers assign children to draw pictures of dead spirits?
The short answer is that adults, who normally compartmentalize and avoid the topic of death unless faced with it directly, use Halloween to lampoon what they otherwise keep out of mind. Through festooning their homes and schools and neighborhoods with dark themes, adults enjoy a catharsis through caricature; they mock mortality.
In 2001 I was conducting fieldwork at Halloween time in a neighborhood where some residents had been killed by terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that prior September. That year, adults hesitated to celebrate Halloween as usual, a reluctance made stronger by possible anthrax threats just before trick or treat time. Visits to haunted displays declined that year. Some towns proposed a moratorium on trick or treating, and many communities organized alternative events to the usual trick or treat ritual. Parents did take the kids candy collecting, but stuck closer to home, only visiting familiar households.
What Halloween masks is this: through festively representing dark themes, adults make a farce of death’s danger; they do so by associating death themes with the cultural members thought most innocent – children. In other words, at Halloween adults render existential fears of demise and decay approachable and presumably harmless, by virtue of association with kids. Parents and other grown-ups tell themselves they are exercising license for the sake of children’s fun — “being big for a day.” This conscious intention, a break with adult protectiveness the other 364 days a year, in fact scares their children younger than eight, but in the spirit of the day, children’s fears are in effect overlooked. The lampoon worked less well following September 11th 2001, since literal death was harder for adults to deny and repress.
Children are whole persons with perspectives of their own, and anthropologists have begun to take these perspectives seriously in recent decades by doing research that taps how children interpret culture. Children hold symbolic value to mature Americans on such red letter days as Christmas and Halloween, even on Memorial Day when kids are front and center, attending or marching in parades alongside war veterans. Children’s participation holds vicarious significance for adults, due to the cultural habit of romanticizing children’s innocence and freedom from pollution. Seeing kids dressed in adult-like costumes during the waning days of autumn serves to lighten the meaning of deadly, dreaded themes for adults. For kids at age six or seven, though, Halloween is a more literal, more fearful confrontation with mortality than many adults admit.
Cindy Dell Clark, associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in Camden New Jersey did fieldwork on American Halloween during 1999-2001. She has also studied American families at Christmas and Easter, chronicled in her book Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith (University of Chicago Press).