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Fear of Halloween

I was going to be an intrepid re porter for this column. I was going to suit up, put the baby in the back carrier, and head out to “Malloween” at Crossgates Mall to observe the flavor of Halloween at America’s new town square. Unfortunately, the festivities didn’t really get underway until the part of the afternoon when kids would start trickling by my house. I haven’t been home for the past few Halloweens, and faced with the choice, I wasn’t quite up to passing up on the best part of the season yet again.

I went door to door a lot as a child—I sold Girl Scout cookies, carried petitions for this and that, sold homemade cookies to raise money for the “nature club” I started that met in the space under our front porch, and trick-or-treated. It wasn’t the chummiest of neighborhoods in general, but I could still point out to you which houses had adults who came to the door in costume, which had scary dogs, and which had people who always bought cookies. One of the things I have enjoyed about becoming an adult is the chance to be on the other side of the door when the kids come calling.

So I suited up my daughter in her little lion costume and headed out to the porch with my bowl (soup pot, really) of candy and the jack-o-lantern. The kids who passed me on their way home from school, so often quarreling, were in a good mood. Many of them stopped to appreciate the baby, or compliment my mother-in-law’s chicken hat with the wings that flap. I saw costumed cyclists go by, and happily handed out candy to pink poodles, Jack Sparrows, wizards, ghouls, and teenagers dressed as greedy teenagers. (Such is the way.) I saw across the street what appeared to be a couple in their 40s going trick-or- treating together, in all seriousness, pillowcases at the ready. I felt a kinship I never had before with the people across the street and several houses down who were also out on their porches, watching it all go by.

I was sad to go in when the baby needed a nap.

It wasn’t earth-shattering. I might have seen a larger number of costumes in better light at the mall and wouldn’t have spent so much on candy.

In fact, there’s nothing really wrong with the idea of Malloween. People working crappy retail jobs should get to see cute kids in costume too.

But it bugs me because not for what it is, but for the fact that it exists largely because many parents feel they need a “safer” alternative to the traditional neighborhood route. This is very sad. Halloween is in part the holiday that’s about facing our fears of the dark, of winter, of death. And, at least how we celebrate it in this country, it’s a neighborhood holiday. To turn to the sanitized and controlled environment of the mall is to neuter Halloween’s central secular ritual in the name of irrational fears. Trick-or-treating migrates to malls and before sundown. Kids get driven on their candy-gathering rounds. Safety warnings populate the airwaves.

Why? Because “the streets” are dangerous. Because strangers, even (or perhaps especially) the ones living on our block, are dangerous. Because teenagers, especially when allowed to put on masks and absorb a spirit of mischief, are terrifying. Because people not only still believe that strangers regularly poison and/or put razors in Halloween treats, but somehow think that the above measures protect from that. That treats given in daylight are safer. That Freddie and Jason and the guy from Halloween only strike at night.

For too many people, instead of a chance to face their fears, Halloween instead seems to magnify them.

For the record, according to citation-full Urban Legends reference site Snopes, there have been no random poisonings of Halloween candy—although some people have tried to use the legend as cover, after the fact poisoning the candy of kids who died by other means. And of the small number of needles and such that have shown up in apples and candy bars, nearly all have been traced to pranks by kids themselves, copycatting the existing rumor or trying to scare a sibling.

And yet, giving out apples now would be tantamount to labeling oneself a depraved child molester. We are so easily scared.

Leaving the contents of the treats aside, it really is bizarre to fear going out after dark on Halloween of all nights. It should be the safest night of the year to be out and about in the evening. Not only are there more people on the street than usual, but far more of the people at home are keeping an eye out their windows and periodically coming to the door. It’s like a neighborhood-watch patrol and a National Night Out and a block party, all rolled into one, plus costumes and candy.

What’s not to like?

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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