In 2015, Halloween in the United States often has little to do with the dead, ghosts and ghouls, or tales of terror. Horror fans, to be sure, have come to consider the Halloween season as a time to celebrate the macabre, watching marathons of classic slasher films and visiting horror conventions. But many of the collegiate set use it as an excuse for drunken costume parties. For middle-class suburban families, it is a time when their households and their shopping venues become overrun with pumpkins and with all things pumpkin-flavored. And for children as likely to be dressed as their favorite Disney characters as creatures from their nightmares, Halloween represents neighborhood rounds in search of candy. The old threat of “trick or treat” they repeat at the lighted doorway carries none of the menace of its original incantation.
Tracing the origins and evolution of Halloween, and how Americans have chosen or not chosen to celebrate it, however, illuminates shifting concerns about class, gender, and social change. A holiday for the dead was likely to create anxiety no matter what form it took, but the American Halloween over the decades has excited more than merely intimations of mortality.
The origin of the Halloween holiday is hazy, but there is little evidence to suggest it actually owes itself to an ancient Celtic holiday known as Samhain. Whatever its origin, the celebration only took root slowly in the United States. Scottish and Scots-Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century were the first to practice the carving of pumpkins into Jack O’Lanterns, a tradition derived from Irish and Scottish fall harvest festivals where faces would be carved into turnips. They were also the first to engage extensively in mummery and pranking, practices linked to supernatural beliefs in faeries and goblins often referred to as “the good people” so as not to offend them and incur their wrath.
By the late nineteenth century, young American men, especially in burgeoning urban areas, began taking the pranking customs of “the good people” as their own. The darker elements of such pranks provoked concerns from urban elites about the “rowdy behavior” and “hooliganism” of young working-class immigrants, though even in rural areas complaints emerged by the end of the century about young “rowdies” pelting the cottages of farmers with cabbages on the night of October 31.
Accordingly, during the early decades of the twentieth century, members of the American middle class began trying to make the holiday more respectable. In the 1910s, for example, Ladies Home Journal encouraged home parties and explained that games such as bobbing for apples would keep children safely off the streets. Still, newspaper accounts from the era make clear that working-class boys and girls continued using Halloween as an excuse to egg houses, overturn trash cans, and even set fires, and by the 1920s candy companies began advertising holiday treats with the promise that they would “stop Halloween pranking.” In an era known for labor uprisings and for violent responses from middle-class factory managers, owners, and government authorities alike, “trick or treat” thus had its origins in an attempt to contain class conflict.
By the time of the Great Depression, fears that trick or treating would become full-scale mobbing, as seen in Harlem in 1934 when egg and coal throwing turned into a night of arson and breaking store windows, yielded some efforts to squelch popular celebrations of the holiday entirely. But the countervailing middle-class impulse to control Halloween celebrations carried on as well. As early as 1939, a writer for American Home, a standard publication of middle class aspiration, assured readers that home parties with plenty of food and spooky decorations would ensure that “the little rowdies from the other side of town will join in the party spirit and leave your front gate intact.” The writer assumed, of course, that “the little rowdies” would not be invited into the middle class home. Rather, the idea was that if the middle class observed the holiday with wholesome indoor celebrations, working class families might do the same and thus transform the very nature of Halloween altogether.
For a time in postwar America, it seemed that members of the growing white middle class, filled with dreams of abundance and certain that they would remain the center of political gravity, had succeeded in engineering just such a transformation. By the 1950s, trick or treating had become a popular and widely accepted activity that most saw as a harmless ritual, even as its contained expression tamped down social conflicts of past decades. Pranking continued but became less common, and candy companies, backed by the new muscular advertising campaigns of Madison Avenue, saw in Halloween a path to massive corporate products. They correctly gauged the holiday’s possibilities, as contemporary candy companies routinely report multi-billion dollar profits from the Halloween season.
Still, those with a darker view of the holiday persisted as well, and corporate hopes for the holiday dimmed by the 1970s. Conservative Christian evangelicals, for example, became an increasingly potent political force in American life, and they often viewed Halloween with disdain. Since at least the late 1960s they have sometimes tried to lure children away from more mainstream Halloween celebration with alternative “fall festivals” or even with Christian-themed attractions known as “Hell Houses” or “Judgment Houses” that use the terrors of demonic forces and pop representations of hell to cultivate converts.
During the 1970s, meanwhile, a broader moral panic set in and provided a sense that Halloween was actually dangerous for children. A fateful article in the New York Times on October 28, 1970, helped, though perhaps cannot be said to have triggered, Halloween hysteria. Declaring that the candy youngsters received for Halloween might give them more “horror than happiness,” it contended “the bubble gum may be sprinkled with lye” and “the apple that Junior gets from the kindly old lady down the street the block…may have a razor blade in it.” The article concluded with an interview from a politically conservative psychologist who suggested that “campus riots” had created an atmosphere of lawlessness that allowed for such horrors.
This was indeed pretty scary stuff, with a bit of red meat thrown in for Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” still worried about the hippies, yippies, and overall social change. But none of these speculations about Halloween sadists had any basis in fact. Indeed, the only time in American history when a child was poisoned with Halloween candy involved the infamous “candyman,” a deranged father who poisoned his own children. Though the fears became urban legends, the idea that strangers were out for blood on Halloween had no foundation in any actual events.
Still, Halloween as a holiday to be celebrated publicly declined in the late 70s and 80s. Class consciousness reasserted itself as groups of neighbors in similar income brackets increasingly banded together to hold small celebrations centered on their block or, even more restrictive, their church or neighborhood association. Meanwhile, yet another moral panic of impressive irrationality swept the United States in the same era, this time centered on concerns about the devil himself. Halloween came in for special attention as respected figures and institutions, including churches, clergy, and even police and social workers circulated rumors that “Satan worshippers” used this alleged high unholy day to harm the young. Particularly among some conservative segments of the American population, such fears completely eclipsed the holiday. Indeed, rejection of Halloween now tends to cut across class lines and depends largely on religious and folk beliefs.
Today’s Halloween, even as it reaches new heights of popularity, feels a bit like a shattered monument to earlier struggles over class and culture. Rowdyism still plays a role but it is tightly controlled. Focused on sex, booze, and other forms of consumption, contemporary rowdy behavior has been fully assimilated with commercial ideologies that encourage us to spend our way into happiness and take lots of selfies on the way. Even evangelical Christians, many of whom have abandoned certain aspects of the culture wars as they have lost some of its more significant battles, seem somewhat more willing to go along with Halloween. Increasingly, middle class evangelicals in particular attempt what those dedicated to an American culture of respectability have tried to do before: absorb the scary holiday into pumpkin-flavored varieties of family-centered celebration.
Like a sad vampire, Halloween is a holiday that has lost its teeth. Maybe only the horror movie fans still understand something of its rebellious and subversive possibilities.