(estimated reading time 7 minutes)
As a child, I loved Halloween. It wasn’t just all the sweets, or the dressing up, although they were big parts of why I loved it. It was the thrill of running around the neighbourhood in the dark crunching through piles of leaves. It was knocking on doors and meeting strangers. It was preparing and practising my song or joke or whatever I’d chosen to earn my handful of monkey nuts and mini Mars bars (I grew up in Scotland where shouting “trick or treat!” wasn’t done). And it was the closing in of the night as it grew darker and colder and spookier.
If October 31st fell on a school day, all the kids would come in dressed up in costumes. That is, until one parent objected. So as not to single out one child, this meant that all of us were prohibited from wearing costumes on Halloween. Somehow, I gleaned the information that the parent, whoever they were, had objected on religious grounds – and I remember wondering “What’s the harm in having fun and putting on costumes?”.
Over the years, I’ve learned that this parent wasn’t the only person to object to Halloween. I’ve encountered a number of people who think it promotes evil and immorality to children, usually (if not aways) on religious grounds. A comprehensive list of reasons some people feel his way about Halloween can be found here, in an article by the Reverend J John titled ‘Six reasons why I believe Halloween is far from harmless‘, published in 2013 in The Mirror.
I thought I would have a go at defending Halloween, and explaining why I think it’s such an important and exciting holiday for children, responding to various arguments I’ve heard for why some people think it’s harmful.
OK, here goes.
“Halloween is bad for kid because it scares them!”
To me, this take on Halloween is overly simplistic, and I would argue instead that Halloween doesn’t simply fill children with fear, but instead teaches them how to confront it. Here’s what I mean.
It’s no doubt obvious to everyone reading this that games and playing are vital to children’s physical, intellectual, emotional and social development. Children play in ways that allow them to challenge themselves. They love to push their own boundaries through play that carries the thrill of danger and an element of risk. By observing children’s play in cultures worldwide, six universal categories of risky play have been established: great heights, rapid speeds, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, rough-and-tumble, and disappearing/getting lost. Children in all cultures play in these ways. There’s a reason why children test their own limits in these ways: they learn how to face their fears, to manage their emotions, and to master their physical abilities. They might not know that that’s what they are doing, but it is. So that’s how children face their physical fears. As we might expect, they face their emotional anxieties in the same manner: through play.
What that play looks like will vary according to the particular fears of the child and the particular culture surrounding the child, but it is always a reflection of the world in which the child believes he needs to survive.
To give a fairly extreme example, in one of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany children played a game called Klepsie*. One child would be blindfolded while the other children took turns to hit him, in order to make him ‘confess’ to having stolen something. It’s easy to see how this was a reflection of the world around them, and prepared them to face that world. This pattern of playing at scary situations in a safe and controlled way also holds true for games played by children in less extreme survival situations. It seems that when children are afraid of something, when they don’t know how to face it, they will create a game that will prepare themselves for it. So rather than try to deny children their coping and development mechanisms due to the kinds of imagery and events that Halloween recalls, perhaps we ought to consider the way in which children’s play intersects with the adult world, and worry about the real world instead.
Seen in this way, Halloween is a role playing game that helps children to deal with their fears, the way they have been dealing with them since we were all hunter-gatherers fearing big cats and scorpions. The events of Halloween can be seen as part of the psychological arsenal children equip themselves with in order to face both real and imaginary dangers.
“Halloween teaches kids to talk to strangers, and that puts them in danger!”
So, Halloween is supposedly bad because it undermines the message that children shouldn’t talk to strangers. You tell them all year not to talk to strangers and not to eat any food offered by them, and then for one night, send them off round the neighbourhood knocking on doors and asking for food. It certainly looks like a big contradiction, but I don’t see a problem with it.
First of all, if you aren’t comfortable with your kid knocking on stranger’s doors, it’s always possible to give your child limits: don’t go down that street; only knock on your friend’s doors, etc etc.
Secondly, is there really anything wrong with your child having one night a year to discover that people in their neighbourhood are actually very nice and trustworthy? That most people don’t want to hurt children and may even like them and want to make their lives happier?
Thirdly, I don’t think it’s invariably bad for children to talk to strangers. When children actually face strangers and talk to them, they are more likely to get a sense of what constitutes a normal interaction between an adult and child, and thereby have a better sense of what is abnormal, should they ever come across it. If this is combined with teaching them some basic training in safety and bodily autonomy, then they will be equipped as they possibly can be to face stranger danger.
Finally, we tend to overestimate stranger danger. We live in an age where kids are very, very safe from lots of things that used to be threats. People used to let their kids go guising/trick-or-treating long before the kids could text them regularly to let them know they were OK.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a small village, so I spent my Halloweens running all over town with my friends, without our parents, knocking on doors I’d never knocked on before. From my own experience, I think it’s good for children to be able to navigate their neighbourhood without their parents being there. It increases children’s self-confidence and sense of independence, which is exactly what every parent should be aiming to achieve. As a Treehugger article points out,
“Much of the appeal of trick-or-treating lies in its freedom and roaming around with a pack of friends, not having an adult hover nearby while you knock on neighbors’ doors.”
It is, of course, easy for me as a non-parent to make these arguments for a more laissez-faire approach to Halloween, but I make them not without providing at least some evidence: an American study by a professor at John Hopkins University titled ‘How Safe are Trick-or-Treaters?‘ concluded that at Halloween there is zero increase in child sex offences (I’m not aware of any reason why British kids would be more at risk than American ones at this time of year).
“Halloween is Offensive!”
I’d never come across this objection to halloween until I read it in the Mirror article by the Reverend J John, who writes:
“Halloween costumes frequently centre on deformities, gory wounds and disfigurement…
Now consider how you would feel about that if you yourself were a burns victim, were severely disabled or had suffered horrendous scarring.
Do we really want to spread the message that ugliness equates to evil?”
This is certainly an argument worth taking seriously; the trouble is, though, that he starts off writing about disfigurement, but ends up writing about ugliness, finally conflating the two entirely with his last line: Do we really want to conflate ugliness with evil?
I imagine that that line might be offensive to some people living with disfigurement. “Disfigured” and “ugly” are not the same, and besides which, some people view their scars positively, as emblematic of who they are and what they have achieved or overcome.
Having said that, I think it is right to call for people to think a little more deeply about the way popular culture associates physical unattractiveness and disfigurement with evil, and beauty with benevolence. But that’s a fault in broader culture, not just Halloween (every Bond villain and every fairytale baddie seems to have some kind of physical disfigurement, and every Disney princess is beautiful both inside and out). If we didn’t make this equation in broader culture, it wouldn’t be made at Halloween. We also need to remember that when it comes to Halloween and those who are marginalised, sometimes disabled people have a dark sense of humour about their disabilities and actually enjoy incorporating their disability into their costumes. And sometimes children living with physical differences that make them self-conscious enjoy dressing up for Halloween, too.
So it’s a good idea to think about whether a particular costume will cause distress to people who are already marginalised, but that doesn’t make Halloween, in its entirety, a bad thing.
“Halloween makes evil seem fun and attractive!”
If you believe this for religious reasons, or you believe that, say, carving a pumpkin lantern opens a conduit for the devil to enter your mind and spirit and lead you away from God, then I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I can say to argue you out of that position. So be it. All I can really do is present my own experiences as a counterpoint.
One Halloween when I was a child, my dad had the idea that it would be fun to build a ghost train. My parent’s house is one of those old ones with a staircase behind a door, leading up to a cold, creepy attic. So Dad hammered two wooden railings to the attic floor, tied a rope to a skateboard with a chair stuck to it, and set up an elaborate pulley system he could use to move the skateboard-train along the rails, while remaining out of sight. Then my brother and I and our mutual friends set about filling the attic with scary decorations, and making things that moved when hidden ropes were pulled, and recording scary sounds to play as people rode the train. The result was glorious. That train turned out to be a big hit, and even days after Halloween, kids were still visiting our house to ride it.
When somebody says that Halloween is a celebration of evil, I can’t help but wonder how something supposedly so sinister was responsible for one of my happiest childhood memories. And it’s not just me. Lots of people have great, happy, fun, memories of Halloween, and enjoyed quality time with family and friends because of it.
“At Halloween, children eat too much junk!”
OK, this is one I agree with. It’s not one that Rev John mentioned but it’s a criticism I’ve heard before. However, a responsible parent will make sure a child knows that there are things you can eat every day, and things you only eat once in a while. I’d be more concerned about the other 364 days of the year when kids are bombarded by encouragement to eat sweets and junk food. An annual sugar blowout isn’t what’s causing the epidemic of poor health that exists among kids these days.
In the end, Halloween doesn’t celebrate the triumph of evil over good; it celebrates community, generosity, creativity, imagination, and the human ability to face, disarm, and even celebrate our fears. If that’s the triumph of evil, then I hope evil continues to triumph every October 31st for many years to come. Happy Halloween!
* * *
*I read about Klepsie in Dr Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn. Unfortunately I have misplaced my copy but when I find it I’ll provide a page reference.