Play in Mind

Exploring the nature and nurture of play—past, present, and future

The Day After Halloween

Putting fear in its place with harmless fun

I’ve been keeping my eye on newspaper, television, and Internet stories about Halloween this past week. They swelled with dire forewarning. Television reports warned parents to inspect candy for any clue of tampering and to throw away treats that are “otherwise suspicious.” The Sacramento Bee recommended that parents look for discoloration and tears or pinholes in candy wrappers. The CDC cautioned parents about the choking hazards and dangers of sugar lurking in that Halloween sack. One television station combined the two concerns and advised parents to feed their goblins a hearty, healthy meal beforehand so they wouldn’t be tempted to snack on collected treats before inspection back home. The San Leandro, CA, police chief who found danger in trick or treating wrote, “As bad as it sounds, this is just a fact of life now. Go on the Internet and check your local state website for sex offenders…explain to them as simply as you can that some adults are bad….” A fundamentalist website wrote of finding the remains of sacrificed animals and yowled, “All parents ought to be concerned. Halloween is desensitizing our children by its glorification of violence, death, mutilation, and gore.”

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Yikes!

Now for the record, I’m in favor of responsible, attentive parenting. But I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that in your household this morning you found no proof of Halloween poisoning, you suffered no personal assault from the stalkers among your neighbors, and you detected no evidence of sudden-onset obesity or daemonic transformations among your children. Chances are you are proud you took prudent steps to make sure your kids could see clearly out of their costumes last night and that they crossed the street carefully. It was Halloween after all, a playful holiday, and not The Night of the Living Dead.

We’re not surprised when scare tactics on television “news” entice us to keep watching through the next commercial. It’s a bit more troubling and complicated when medical, law enforcement, or religious entities (as above) summon fear to promote a cause or interest. But it’s even more interesting to gauge how important fear has become in selling ideas in this culture—a technique that has far reaching effects in how we live our lives.

Halloween decoration printed on crepe paper from about 1913-1918, Courtesy of Th
Halloween decoration printed on crepe paper from about 1913-1918
Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York

Hara Estroff Marano detailed creeping American timidity and over-protectiveness—a “fear culture”—in her engaging and searching study A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting. Among the effects she found a timorousness, declining self-reliance, and growing lack of resilience among upcoming generations. Fearmongers flirt with fear, but their impulse is hardly playful. And when the neighborhood organizes an indoor Halloween party out of fear, they deprive kids of the chance to find their social courage. (Enjoy reading her thoughts about Halloween in this American Journal of Play interview with Lenore Skenazy. You might also enjoy Samira Kawash’s American Journal of Play article Gangsters, Pranksters, and the Invention of Trick-or-Treating, 1930-1960.)

Those of us old enough to have experienced a free-range Halloween, the foray into the neighborhood, the empty threat of tricks, and the reward of treats unearned, will find it particularly ironic that this night (of all nights) should be the occasion of a fear campaign. The spooky and mock- bloodcurdling costumes for kids are meant to play with fear so as to subdue it and banish it. A pirate’s not afraid of the dark! Watch out, a witch casts powerful spells! Kids approach the scary door, gotten up in cobwebs and spooky jack-o-lanterns, their courage buoyed by their peer group or the adults chuckling at the walkway, and yell, “Trick or treat!” It’s a little victory. For their own part on this night, adults attend parties that carry a mildly transgressive vibe that pokes fun at caution.

Objectively, Halloween is safe. Along with her colleagues, Elizabeth Letourneau, a Medical University of South Carolina researcher interested in sex offenses, looked into 67,000 crime records between 1997 and 2005 and noted that, even though media campaigns position Halloween as dangerous, this is actually one of the least risky days of the year. As our sense of community declines alongside our growing fear of each other, we can look happily to Halloween as a great convivial event, an antidote. On the day after this second most commercially important American holiday behind Christmas, we find that Halloween turns out to have been, thanks to the kids in costumes, the year’s best occasion to meet our neighbors.

 

Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D., is vice president for play studies at The Strong, editor of its American Journal of Play, and lead contributor to its re:Play Blog.

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