Social Distancing, Stranger Danger, and The Campaign To Save Halloween

Photo by author.

Last week, after months of sadness and worry, I got a promotional email from the Spirit Halloween store and instantly I felt glad to be alive. As in, I literally thought, verbatim, “I’m glad I am alive.”

This week on Twitter there’s been a lot of talk about what Halloween will look like this year. Many people worry there will be no Halloween at all, which is of course ridiculous. For all its long history, Halloween has been under threat (in the 17th century, it was outlawed). Halloween has been threatened by Puritanism, by urbanism, by deforestation, by commercialization, by overprotective parents and Satanic panic and poisoned candy hoaxes, by pranks that go too far and pranks that don’t go far enough. Fear that there may be no Halloween is a Halloween tradition itself.

Meanwhile the Halloween haunt community has been planning their response to the pandemic since the first stay-at-home orders in March. On Halloween Forum, between posts titled “Crows/Ravens I need LOTS of them” and “Fog Distribution — Does Tubing Size Matter,” there’s a thread on “touchless candy delivery systems” ranging from the simple to the sublime. “Could you just manually drop the candy down a chute of some sort?” someone asks. You could. Other solutions include animatronic arms, pulley systems, air cannons, conveyor belts, plexiglass partitions, modified vending machines, and just tossing candy out the window. An apartment-dweller in New York City is planning to dress like a masked witch and dole out candy from a cauldron at the end of a long-handled ladle. The Halloween blogger Senor Scary is rigging up a sort of clothesline, with full-sized candy bars suspended by painted orange pins. (He adds, “And yes, I’ll be prepared if kids take more than one — because that’s the Halloween spirit.”)

Poster chubstuff from Hillsboro, Oregon is planning a candy drive-through: “we will prepare full sized Halloween bags to hand out to the kids while they stay in their car. I’m wearing skeleton gloves and a half mask that covers my nose and mouth anyway, so I’m prepped for social distancing from the start. The bags will have a bunch of candy of all different types to approximate what kids would have gotten from a bunch of houses in the neighborhood. We don’t get that many kids, so we can afford to do that. The idea is that even if Halloween trick-or-treating gets a thumbs down from the CDC, we can create a way for kids to get a bit of the fun with minimal risk to their health.”

Many haunters are exchanging their walk-through mazes for drive-by front yard displays. Camile from Texas says: “The family can pull up in their car so they see the haunt, we’ll be stationed at a table with the treats between the curb and the city sidewalk on a small little median. They’ll roll down a window and we’ll admire the kids’ costumes and answer any questions about the haunt, and the parents will tell us how many kiddos they have and then pop their trunk from inside the car and we’ll put the treats in the trunk with gloved hands.”

She goes on, “We’ve brought treats to folks in cars in the past for families that had cumbersome strollers, little tiny kids that were too scared to make the trek up the walkway, and people who have challenges walking up to the haunt or getting in/out of cars. Those folks seemed to appreciate that small accommodation so we’re looking at it as an extension of that- easy peasy and everybody still gets to have fun.”

Poster cadcoke5 adds, “Keep in mind that the who trick-or-treat is a social event. It is about people enjoying being with each other. I don’t think it is necessary to have hand-to-hand contact to accomplish this. I think for a lot of kids, it is just getting the verbal warm greeting and interaction… ‘Wow…your costume looks wonderful. Do you really like spider man? Show me one of his moves!’ So, regardless of how the candy is delivered, keep the human interaction.”

Of course there are contrarians, who claim fear of the virus is overblown and they won’t make any concessions to it, but the most common sentiment is concern for kids who may miss out this year. Jason Rhodes in Millsboro, Delaware has launched a GoFundMe campaign to provide kids that can’t trick or treat with packages of toys and candy through the mail. My local haunt group, SoCal Valley Haunters, is discussing ways to add a charitable component to trick or treating, raising money or gathering supplies in support of local teachers.

Trick or treating takes place on the literal threshold between the familiar and the strange, inside and outside, us and them. Anyone who has received a package or ordered a meal during the quarantine, and anyone who has been compelled to deliver that package or that meal, knows that the front door has become a newly charged space. Whatever accommodations are made to make trick or treating safer, this ritual exchange with strangers at the doorstep will take on more meaning this year than perhaps ever before.

I was a child myself the last time so many people fretted over the end of Halloween (or at least the end of trick or treating, the two often discussed as though they were synonymous).

Rumors of sadists intentionally harming trick or treaters reach back to at least the mid-1960s, later augmented by the Satanic panic of the late ’70s and ’80s. (In his paper “‘Safe Spooks’: New Halloween Traditions in Response to Sadism Legends,” Dr, Bill Ellis traces rumors of adults harming trick or treaters as early as the 1940s.)

A few real-life incidents inspired the legends, or perhaps simply confirmed the stories already out there. In 1964, Helen Pfeil, a 47-year-old housewife from Long Island, got annoyed with all the teenagers who showed up to her house every year demanding candy, kids she deemed too old to still be out trick or treating. She made up some fake candy packages for teens as a prank of her own. Little kids still got candy; teenagers got dog biscuits, steel-wool kitchen scrubbers, and little tabs of ant poison, all wrapped up in aluminum foil. The ant poison was in its original packaging, clearly marked POISON with a picture of a skull and crossbones, and Pfeil told each teen it was a joke as she handed the packets to them, about a dozen packets in all.

Handing out packages to teenagers clearly labelled as poison with the intention of annoying them is certainly uncharitable, but a far cry from what the legend became: adults hiding poison inside candy with the intent of murdering young children.

A far more terrible incident occurred six years later, when a five-year-old boy named Kevin Toston died a few days after Halloween. Police found that his trick or treating candy had been laced with heroin. The tragic death of a young child, linked to both Halloween and the burgeoning war on drugs, caused a media sensation. It was later revealed that the boy had been accidentally poisoned when he got into a stash of heroin hidden at his uncle’s house and his family then sprinkled his candy with heroin to throw off investigators. A terrible accident, the incident had nothing to do with Halloween at all, but it created a further link between trick or treating and the death of children.

The third, and most disturbing, incident to solidify the myth of tainted candy came in 1975, when for the first time, an adult intentionally murdered a child by poisoning his Halloween candy. A man named Ronald Clark O’Bryan murdered his own son, eight-year-old Timothy Mark O’Bryan, by putting cyanide into a Pixy Stix in order to collect on his son’s life insurance policy. O’Bryan was sentenced to death. At one point his execution date was set for Halloween 1982, and though O’Bryan was ultimately killed by lethal injection in March 1984, many sources still suggest he was killed on Halloween, further cementing the connection between Halloween, candy, crime, and death.

This, too, had nothing to do with strangers secretly murdering children, but it was close enough to cause real panic throughout the country. Then in September 1982, when I was three years old, seven people died from cyanide-laced Tylenol, and this incident, and its nearness to Halloween, contributed still further to the idea that all packaged food and medicine was suspect.

To these fears of poison were added fears of people putting razor blades, needles, or other sharp objects into candy. Between 1967 and 1982, dozens of families all over the country reported finding foreign objects hidden in their candy. Later research discovered that all of these cases were hoaxes, committed by either parents or the children themselves. Nonetheless, in 1975, Newsweek warned “If this year’s Halloween follows form, a few children will return home [from trick or treating] with something more than just an upset tummy: in recent years, several children have died and hundreds have narrowly escaped injury from razor blades, sewing needles and shards of glass purposefully put into their goodies by adults.” (In fact, no children have ever died or been seriously injured from razor blades, sewing needles, or shards of glass in Halloween candy.)

As if that wasn’t enough, on October 30, 1991, the New York Times reported, “A frightening rumor about an impending mass murder is spreading across college campuses in the Northeast, prompting some schools to call meetings and issue statements to comfort worried students … In one version, a psychic appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s television show supposedly predicted that a massacre would occur on a New England campus sometime around Halloween.”

A spokesperson for The Oprah Winfrey Show denied any of the show’s guests had ever predicted anything of the kind, but that didn’t stop students from worrying, especially in the wake of the real-life murders of five college a serial killer in Florida the year before.

To this panic-inducing combination of serial killers, random poisonings, and arsons was added the fear of Satanism. By the late ’70s, city officials and small-town papers warned parents that Satanists reserved the nights of October 30 and 31 for occult rituals involving the bloody sacrifice of pets or even children. “Keep your pets inside” joined the growing list of Halloween reminders, which also included more sensible warnings about pedestrian safety.

In a 1985 poll, only 60% of parents said they would allow their children to go trick-or-treating, even with adult supervision. The rest headed for shopping malls, amusement parks, or public events at community centers, schools, and churches. In fact, the drop in the popularity of trick or treating contributed to the rise of Halloween-themed public events generally, everything from guided midnight walks through historic cemeteries to after-dark zoo tours of “scary” animals.

Some of these public events were more akin to harvest festivals, and others catered to very young children or had quasi-educational aims to teach children about history or nature. However, a large subset, geared towards teens and preteens, were all about scares. As more and more public Halloween events emerged, the competition for bloodier and more outrageous and often offensive effects grew more intense. Real fear of everything from flammable costumes to Satanic pet-nappers, inadvertently created an ever more shocking celebration of pretend fears like vampires and zombies.

Halloween survived. But the stranger danger decades had their effect. As more families opted out of trick or treating, a few families went bigger. Today in every U.S. city, certain neighborhoods are known as the places to go on Halloween. Some are middle-class areas, often anchored by one or two large-scale amateur home haunts; others, affluent areas where wealthy families hire professional set designers and event planners to stage elaborate holiday spectacles. Because these neighborhoods are so popular, they feel safer, too, as though they’d been vetted by hundreds of other parents. The more people go to them, the more people go. These neighborhoods draw trick or treaters from all around their cities, including kids from less wealthy areas with fewer trick or treating options. Which leads, all too predictably, to grumbling about poorer, often non-white kids — teenagers — dropping into their neighborhoods, not even in costume, to hoard their near-valueless candy in pillowcases instead of neat plastic pails. At the same time, the crush of trick or treaters in a few concentrated neighborhoods made each exchange more anonymous and more fleeting. Fear of strangers made Halloween less hospitable for everyone.

In soul-caking, one early precursor of trick or treating, little spiced cakes were distributed to the poor in exchange for their promise to pray for the souls of the dead. Over time, the practice expanded beyond just cakes. Groups of children would go around to their neighbors begging for snacks, coins, and small toys. Sometimes they were accompanied by adults who followed along playing musical instruments. They would repay the gifts with a performance of music, dancing, skits, or jokes. (Of course, there was also the threat of pranks, which I wrote a bit about before.)

Without prayers, performances, or pranks, now all trick or treaters have to offer is delight in seeing them in their costumes. Their only product is themselves. So young children are more valuable than teenagers, elaborate costumes more valuable than simple ones. Groups of kids considered most cute and non-threatening (middle-class, white, and well-behaved) are more welcome on front porches than teenagers, non-white children, children without appealing costumes, children with unusual behavior or appearance, or anyone who is perceived as acting rowdy.

After my divorce, I moved out of my suburban neighborhood of single-family houses and into an apartment building in a denser part of the same city. Few kids lived nearby, and it was harder to trick or treat where front doors were located behind locked security gates and closed-off lobbies. So that year I drove my kids less than a mile away, to the nearest well-known Halloween street.

Hundreds of families packed the narrow sidewalks along a half-mile stretch of expensive homes. Nearly every house was decorated, with animatronic figures, walk-through mazes, and light-up inflatables. At the most popular houses, children had to wait in line. There was so much light spilling everywhere, it hardly felt like night. It was fun — trick or treating is always fun — but flat, too.

For two years we drove to the Halloween neighborhood. The third year I decided to try our own neighborhood instead. It was less efficient. Where the Halloween neighborhood packed dozens of candy-giving houses into a few blocks, in our own neighborhood there might be only one or two participating homes on each block. We’d stand on the corner and peer ahead into the dark until we glimpsed a single lit-up home and then race towards it. We had false starts and disappointments, and we did a lot more walking. But we met people we knew, or had always meant to know. There were no lines and time enough to talk to everyone. It was dark and quiet for long stretches, it was spooky. We relearned our own neighborhood, the small alleyways and tucked-away garden apartments, the 100-unit condo block with one hopeful open door. One of the thrills of trick or treating for children is seeing their own neighborhood transformed, the familiar stairways and front lawns and porches made fantastical, both frightening and compelling.

The fears of my childhood were wildly overblown when they weren’t entirely imaginary. This year trick or treating, like all social encounters, is truly dangerous, to both trick or treaters and the homes they visit. The pandemic has made the fear of strangers all too real. But the pandemic has also made it clear how much we rely on one another, whether we like it or not. The front door is the place we are forced to engage with others, in interactions that are often exploitative and thoughtless. Halloween, in whatever form it may come, will be a chance to reimagine what front doors can be.

This is our first year in a new neighborhood so we’re going to start strong. Full-size candy bars, of course, and an elaborate front-yard display of sea monsters. I am contemplating a tentacle-cum-candy delivery chute. At Zac’s suggestion, we converted our front yard into a pumpkin patch for the neighborhood kids. When the pumpkins are ready, we will distribute them, safely, to any one who wants one, any way we can. We can set them on the curb, we can pile them in the driveway, we can load them into the trunks of idling cars. Halloween isn’t going anywhere.

Writer for Catapult, Longreads, The Awl, The Toast, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and so on. Owner of After-Party Taxidermy. Working on a book about Halloween.

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