Editorial: Halloween Greetings From Wal-Mart, et al.

Becky O'Malley
Friday October 24, 2003

A curmudgeon, according Merriam-Webster Online, is a crusty, ill-tempered old man, so I guess I don’t qualify as a full-fledged curmudgeon. But, except for the man part, every year as Halloween approaches I feel more like a curmudgeon than ever. Halloween used to be a nice, low-key, non-sectarian opportunity for the kids to have a little cheap fun. It wasn’t part of any religious group’s traditional calendar, so everyone could participate.  

Now the kinds of chain stores which don’t advertise in the Daily Planet are featuring electrified vinyl pumpkins, presumably to save kids the trouble of carving their own, to give them more time to watch TV. And adults have taken over the celebrating. Halloween, even in Berkeley, has turned into an opportunity for conspicuous consumption, as people who have too much time on their hands try to out-compete their neighbors with lavish public displays.  

When I was a child, we didn’t even say “trick or treat.” We said, “My name is Jimmy and I’ll take what you gimme.” I lived in St. Louis, so that could have been a regional variation from the national standard, but the idea was that the people who answered the door pretended to be fooled by our obviously homemade costumes. Some of the really old people on our block, the ones who were at least 55, made us sing a song or perform in some other way—that was the “trick,” for us in those days.  

Treats were homemade, too. The Department of Urban Legends, a sub-division of the Ministry of Truth, tells us that it’s now unsafe for kids to eat the apples, cookies, cupcakes and popcorn balls that neighbor ladies used to offer. And no, don’t tell me that children will be poisoned by anything except individually wrapped commercial candy, because psychologists and folklorists have convincingly debunked the myth of trick-or-treaters being poisoned by neighbors. For twenty years I’ve offered to pay $100 to anyone who can prove that a single such incident has actually happened, and I’ve never paid out a penny. October candy sales are way up, though. 

We wore our costumes to school, and had simple parties where bobbing for apples (who knows what that is anymore?) was the main game. Now some schools have banned Halloween parties because right-wing religious nuts think that the holiday has some connection with Satanism. Then again, in Berkeley, perhaps the parties might be banned because some local citizens think they show disrespect for Satanism. You never know, these days, who might be offended or by what. 

Grown-ups, on the other hand, now have bigger and better parties. Growing up is hard to do, and Halloween is a chance to pretend that you don’t really have to. In and of itself, it’s okay to act childish occasionally. But when the child you choose to imitate is a malicious and destructive brat, it can be unpleasant to watch, which is why some gay groups are asking that the Castro scene be toned down this year.  

Is it ever going to be possible to reclaim holidays from exploitation? There’s a trend to expand the celebration of new holidays which are off the radar of the dominant commercial culture. But I fear it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising manufacturer comes out with products for Indigenous Peoples Day like an electrified drum which you don’t have to beat, or a string of lights in the shape of kachinas to put up on your porch.  


Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Daily Planet.