Arriving less than a month after that initially exciting, ultimately drudging return to the classroom, the season sweeps in early October. Crisp days flush out late summer oppressiveness. The sun’s early descent swathes all in gold glow. Then, gradually throughout the month, peaked eyes leer out from closed windows, glowering and glimmering with candlelight in the evening. Beistle cutouts of orange, green, yellow, and black decorate doors, giving early indication of the houses worth visiting come the 31st. Jack-o-lanterns. Witches. Black cats. Cartoonishly rendered haunted houses and skulls with rats peering from empty eyes. Nature gets in on the festivities by strewing dead leaf confetti. As the day nears, kids and spirited adults debate costume choices. Some start their planning considerably earlier. Nearer still come the trips to costume shops or the rummages through junk piles to construct homemade disguises. Traditionalists duck under white sheets to howl and rattle chains or grease-up with green paint to play vampires and witches. And as that one day on which prowling little wolves take the streets approaches, they take the airwaves too when kids cartoons invade primetime TV: “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, Halloween Is Grinch Night”, “Bugs Bunny’s Howl-o-ween Special”.
Then the 31st, when store clerks shed their smocks and students shun their school clothes to take on new personas for the day. In the aurous afternoon or at twilight, small strange creatures creep down sidewalks and across lawns, rapping on doors, demanding sweets, exploring neighborhood nooks never intruded any other day of the year. They build appetites that can only be sated with tiny bags of candy corn, miniature Snickers bars, Pixy Stix, rolls of Smarties, Dum Dums, and candy cigarettes. When little legs grow too weary, when loot sacks and plastic pumpkins fill to capacity, when the welcoming lights in homes extinguish, the time comes to return home. But a month-long diet of ghosts and monsters populates young imaginations. They second guess. And though they’ve passed that tree on countless slogs to school or jaunts to friends’ homes, doesn’t its gnarled limbs resemble talons tonight? And doesn’t the wind rustling its remaining foliage sound more like malignant whispers? And doesn’t the darkness seem that much darker when parents are home, going about their mundane business as they would any other night, while they’re children are out roaming, masquerading as evil things? Could a child’s costume fool real goblins into drifting up from the netherworld, believing their kind really has inherited the Earth? Hurry back to your homes, where you can comb through your sugary stash in safety, and recall the thrill of when the night spirited away your reason. That fanciful, frightening, fantastic sensation only comes on Halloween.
Frightening Halloween may be. It may be a day fixated on monsters and devils and evil. But is there a more innocent day of the year? On what other day do parents trust their children to venture out alone to literally take candy from strangers? On what other day do adults place so much trust in each other to treat each other’s kids safely and respectfully? During the ‘70s and ‘80s, reports of razor blades concealed in apples and candy spiked with angel dust went beyond the usual Halloween frights. These suburban myths made parents take a more active role in Halloween activities, accompanying older kids on their Trick-or-Treats and inspecting their candy like amateur Homeland Security grunts. But isn’t the kind of trust that comes with Trick-or-Treating valuable? Does paranoia have to taint the more fanciful fears that are Halloween’s sustenance just as it now contaminates our airports and subways tunnels? Shouldn’t kids learn to feel comfortable in their own communities? Because beyond its creatures, Halloween is different from all other days of the year, different from all other holidays, because it is about community. Most of us spend Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukah inside our homes with friends and relatives or in the homes of those familiars. Halloween is the only holiday on which adults send their children outside to discover unfamiliars, knock on their doors, and interact in one of the more intimate ways by asking them for food. There’s no exchange of money, no expectations on the part of the giver. For a lot of people, Halloween is the one day of the year they are actually charitable. Unlike the 4th of July or Thanksgiving, it has no nationalistic component. Unlike Hanukah or Christmas or Kwanzaa it has no enduring religious one. Halloween is for everyone.
Halloween also differs from other holidays because of the way it grows up with us. We may give and get different kinds of gifts as we get older, and hopefully we no longer believe those gifts come from Santa Claus when we’re adults, but Christmas doesn’t change significantly through life’s stages. Halloween does. It is Trick-or-Treating when we’re young, light mischief making when we’re too old for candy begging, parties when we’re old enough to host them. Those who choose to have children discover that Halloween changes again as they see the holiday through the eyes of their kids, reliving their own Trick-or-Treating adventures, the satisfaction of a bag bulging with colorful empty calories, the delightfully irrational fears: all the things their kids will remember fondly when they’re old enough, and possibly pass along to their own kids.
But let’s not forget the single best thing about Halloween: it’s a holiday completely devoted to monsters! Wrap your skull around that as if its fresh news. America has a national holiday that revolves around monsters and ghosts. What a gift to horror movie fans like us! Western fans don’t get All Cowboy’s Day. There’s no Laughmas for comedy geeks. Sci-fi junkies are deprived of Robot Hashanah. But we often-maligned horror fans are allowed a holiday on which our gruesome obsessions become the nation’s. What a weird, wonderful day Halloween is. Have a great one.