First, let’s lay out the landscape of the phenomenology of Halloween as it is experienced in America. Then, let’s analyze its propriety. There are two axes of analysis that I will highlight.
Children and young people dress up in costumes and go door-to-door to get a sweet, the password for obtaining this favor being to call out, “trick or treat.” The grammar of this expression is a command coupled with a threat: “give me a treat, or I’ll play a trick on you.” Today, the threat is mostly an idle one. Clearly the statement has become a linguistic formula deracinated from its original meaning.
It wasn’t always so. In my mother’s childhood, in 1920s North Dakota at least, boys did play tricks. The one that seemed to be etched most vividly in her memory was tipping over the outhouse. My mother was sweet and gentle, and she told of the boys’ escapades without any rancor or resentment; even, with a bit of a twinkle in her eye. It was narrative without moralizing. It reminds a bit of the hobo in That Hideous Strength, with his bemused descriptions of the connivances of wicked men: “a rum thing” he would say, with a slap on the knee.
I confess, that my instinctive reaction would probably be quite different. I’m inclined to think I would resent my outhouse being tipped over. But that German community took it in stride. “Boys will be boys,” I suppose. I assume it was understood that the boys would not burn the outhouses down. There was a tacit understanding of the limit on all sides. And within that limit, it was all in good fun.
The outhouse-tipping was not done, I think, in retaliation for failure to obtain a treat. Rather, the “tricks” were a kind of parallel activity that provided sense and meaning for the expression “trick or treat” called out by the more harmless children.
By the time of my childhood, the tricks were gone. We were interested in one thing only: maximizing the haul of candy. It continued well into teenage. We didn’t waste time. We hustled. We saturated a good mile radius, and filled more than one pillowcase with goodies. It was a serious, entrepreneurial business.
Today, it seems that the entrepreneurial spirit has also gone by the wayside. Now, timid little groups of very small and cute children, jealously looked over by mothers, visit a few houses, get some candy and maybe their pictures taken, and that is that.
The second axis is the costumes, along with the costume parties, emphasizing faux-scary props.
The costumes, in turn, can be divided into two basic classes: the scary and the romantic. The scary ones have to do with witches and goblins, demons, Dracula, skeletons, and other dark harbingers of death. The romantic have to do with fairies, princesses, Robin Hood, cowboys, Spiderman, and so forth.
Clearly, the scary costuming is the more primal and authentic to the Halloween tradition; just as clearly, the romantic costuming has nothing to do with the scary, and is simply a benign expansion of the abstract idea of putting on a costume into a region having nothing to do with the originary idea.
If there is a problem with Halloween, the focus of analysis must of course be the scary side. Then, if there is to be criticism of the romantic costuming, it must be in virtue of its opportunistic association with the other.
Criticism of the trick-or-treating tradition seems to come chiefly from libertarians that complain that it is a form of extortion.
I was once impressed by that line of critique. However, I no longer think that that is really what is going on. One participates as the giver only if one really wants to have an opportunity to give candy to neighborhood children. We did not waste time fretting at houses that did not answer the doorbell. We did not mark them as scrooges, to be held as eternal objects of resentment. We moved on, and were happy that so many were delighted to give.
Christian criticism seems to dwell on the scary costuming, and what that seems to imply. As a Puritan, for many years I concluded that even a light-hearted playing with dark symbolism was dangerous if not positively evil.
And indeed, if “playing with dark symbolism” is really what is going on, if it really were a dalliance with the Devil, then it is surely wrong. Hopefully, there is no need to rehearse the unequivocal Scripture forbidding such practice.
I am still a Puritan, but I am also getting more in touch with my intuitive German roots. It seems like Halloween, at least in its German-American manifestation, is a primal celebration of Christ’s defeat of the demonic realm. The silly masking is actually a raucous unmasking of the Devil and his pretensions. “One little word shall fell him,” as the Lutheran hymn taunts.
Coming to this conclusion should not be to deliver a blank check to the wicked that really do serve the Devil. Just as my mother took Halloween in stride as harmless and fun, she would have been horrified to learn of the doings at the Bohemian Grove and Skull and Bones. We are ruled by men that are truly wicked; a child giggling behind a witch’s mask and hoping for a candy bar is something else again.
(And does not the mask teach: witchery is ugly.)
If then the scary costuming is not evil, a miniori the romantic.
A third Halloween theme is seeking out a scary thrill. It seems to be in human nature to take delight in a good scare. At this time of year, it manifests itself in funhouses, skeletons with recorded sound effects, and so forth. I would tend to put these things as a sub-class of general thrill-seeking, which would include riding roller coasters, advanced skiing, and watching balloon rides in an IMAX theatre.
This class of desired experience calls for a more extended treatment. Briefly, however: the thrill-seeking seems to be a desire for standing-outside-oneself — literally, ecstasy — which is perhaps a symbolic acting out of simulated death, and overcoming death. The thrilling experience is a pretend near-death experience, by which we sublimate the fear of death. This too can be put into theological context.
In a word, I’m closer now to my childhood view. Sometimes it takes many years to ratiocinate a perspective that our mothers grasped in a single intuition.