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Halloween 2012

Unmasking Halloween

Is America's second holiday a commercialized travesty, or still a chance to subvert the status quo?

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Among American holidays, Halloween is really the outlier. Holidays from Yom Kippur to Christmas to Ramadan grow from the traditions of major religions; Halloween is a pagan holiday in the loosest disguise. Even secular holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are anchored by home and family; Halloween sends children out to knock on strangers' doors. Other holidays in the United States mark blessings and bounties, promises ranging from the coming of spring to the arrival of the new year; Halloween celebrates something darker, more anarchic, as the natural world dies, with the sweet rot of leaves in the air. 

Other holidays promise gifts or feasts; on Halloween you ask for them — with a hint of actual menace behind the demand. After all, if you don't give a treat, you can expect some tricks. And let's not forget Devil's Night, which, for the relatively innocent children of suburban Detroit, was an opportunity to garland trees with toilet paper and egg the homes of perceived foes. (That was true, too, once upon a time, in the city itself, before arson became part of the trickster's arsenal and insurance fraud entered the picture.)

It's a strange holiday, one that turns children into roving gangs of monsters, out to do tricks or worse, and yet the whole community joins in to endorse it all. (For a look at just how anarchic it was a century ago, see the Halloween scene in Meet Me in St. Louis.)

There was always this subversive, somewhat threatening undercurrent to the holiday. But as Halloween has changed, perhaps some of it has gotten lost. Certainly, for people of a certain age, it's strange to look back on the evolution it has undergone over the last 30 years: going from marauding mobs of kids chasing a sugar high through the night to a rigidly chaperoned multibillion-dollar industry. 

Halloween as big business

Halloween really started to change in the 1980s. Although childhood trick-or-treating continued throughout the decade, with an estimated 93 percent of U.S. households with children under age 12 still participating in 1988, Halloween was becoming a more adult-oriented holiday. And spending grew accordingly. By the early 1990s, Americans had made Halloween the second biggest adult party night after New Year's Eve. About a decade ago, Halloween surpassed Thanksgiving as the event Americans spent most on next to Christmas.

The spending on Halloween has been nothing short of fantastic. Even as times get tough, the spending only gets higher. In 2005, before the 2007 crash set in, Americans spent almost $5 billion on Halloween. After a slight drop in spending for 2009, by 2010, holiday spending bounced back and climbed higher still to $5.8 billion. This year, Americans will spend an estimated $7 billion to $8 billion on the holiday. 

And that's more than candy and costumes. It includes parties, events and attractions. For instance, the Haunted House Association estimates there are more than 2,000 Halloween attractions charging admission fees, including not just haunted houses but corn mazes, pumpkin patches and hayrides, all "haunted," of course. Haunted attractions in the United States bring in an estimated $300 million to $500 million each year, drawing almost a half-million customers.

With numbers this high, even the more frivolous items on the budget still add up to mind-boggling figures. For instance, this year, Americans will spend an estimated $370 million on costumes — for their pets. And that's up about $60 million from last year.

When numbers get this big this fast, you can be sure there are deep-seated trends at work driving them. Among the most powerful, arguably, is that Halloween represents a chance to escape from reality. In a tough economic climate, with high unemployment, stagnant pay and a rising cost of living, the chance to blow off some steam and forget about it all gains a powerful allure. 

And research shows that young people, aged 18-24, are more likely than any other age group to party on Halloween. Is it a coincidence that, for this age group, only 56 percent have a job? Or that many face high college tuition costs and crushing student loans? It would seem that, given the fearful climate for young adults, Halloween is a chance to trade in real fears for imagined ones.


Diluting Halloween

Perhaps the way Halloween has become so embedded in U.S. culture has to do with how it can be tweaked to alter its appeal. Certainly, in places where fundamentalist Christians hold sway, we've seen an effort to subsume it into "harvest celebrations," in which the paganistic undertones are dialed down and Halloween becomes less about jack-o-lanterns and haunted houses and more about pumpkins and hayrides. And plenty of families have steered away from dressing their kids as monsters, ghosts and vampires.

What's more, parents fearful of "stranger danger" have done their best to turn Halloween into a daytime activity performed in the company of adults. Driven by fears of stranger kidnapping (even when FBI statistics say your child is more likely to die of drowning in a pool, bathtub or toilet) and tales of apples spiked with razors (none of which could be confirmed by researchers), too many overzealous, overly fearful parents have taken the adventure, spontaneity and fun out of Halloween entirely.

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