A natural part of becoming an adult is pushing back against your parents and taking a stand for something you believe in.
I remember the first time my son stood up to me and took a stand for something he believed in.
He was twelve years old.
“Come on!” I yelled from the living room as I quickly tied my tennis shoes. “We’re going to miss the good stuff!”
A few moments later my son emerged from his room, wearing a t-shirt and jeans instead of the Halloween costume I had purchased.
“Where’s your costume, buddy?” I asked. “The sun’s almost down. It’s time to trick-or-treat!”
“Dad,” he said with his hands in his pockets, standing before me as if I were a king holding court. “I’ve decided I don’t want to trick-or-treat this year.”
I laughed. “That’s a good one. Now go put on your costume and let’s go get some candy!”
“But I already have candy,” he said, pointing at the pile of sweets on the dinner table. “Yesterday at school we had our Spooky Carnival.”
“And we did Haunt the Zoo the night before that,” my wife added.
I shot her a look. Whose side was she on?
“Seriously, buddy, go put your costume on. We need to get going.”
“But I don’t want to go. I don’t want to be a zombie,” he said.
“You wanted to be a zombie when I bought that mask.”
“Honey, it’s going to be cold tonight,” my wife piled on. “It’s supposed to rain. If he doesn’t want to go…”
I looked at the two of them with disbelief. It was October 31 — Halloween night — and not only was my twelve-year-old son taking a stand against trick-or-treating, but my wife was supporting his decision! Both of them stared at me, waiting for me to say something.
“I’m a reasonable guy, so here’s what I’m going to do,” I said. “I’m going to give you exactly five minutes to put on that zombie costume and get your ass back out here. And you,” I said to my lovely wife, “can either put on a coat and join us or stay here and hand out candy.”
“But hon, he obviously doesn’t want to go,” said my wife.
“Who cares if he doesn’t want to go! It’s Halloween!”
My wife was not pleased with the king’s decree, and grabbed her coat. “I might as well go along. There’s no point in staying here to hand out candy. It’ll be so cold and wet, there won’t be any kids out there tonight trick-or-treating.”
I finished tying my shoes and stood up. “There’ll be at least one.”
For the next two hours, the three of us walked every street of the neighborhood, stopping at every house with its porch light turned on and collecting a piece of candy. By the time we got home, everybody was cold and wet and nobody was speaking.
Because that’s what you do on Halloween.
At least, that’s what I did on Halloween when I was a kid.
Back then, trick-or-treating on Halloween was not optional. Halloween without trick-or-treating would have been as foreign as Christmas without gifts or the Fourth of July without fireworks. Trick-or-treating is Halloween; it’s literally the way we celebrate the holiday. Kids aren’t dressing up as SpongeBob SquarePants or yellow Minions to ward off evil spirits or pay their respects to ancient Celtics. The whole point of Halloween is to put on a costume, go outside on October 31, and get that candy.
I’m fighting an uphill battle — not just against my kid, but against everybody. Two days before Halloween last year, my son’s school had Dental Day. On October 29, a local dentist shower up at my kid’s school to talk about the dangers of eating too much candy on Halloween.
That evening my son informed me that it wasn’t just ghosts who said “Boo!” on Halloween, but also your teeth when you eat too much sugar. The dentist gave every student a free toothbrush for Halloween. I told my son what we used to do to people who handed out toothbrushes, coupons, or pencils for Halloween back in my day. My wife sent me to my room.
When I was a kid, my school didn’t celebrate Halloween with a visit from the local dentist. We wore our costumes to school! One day a year, hundreds of adolescent vampires and werewolves and fairy princesses sat together working on math problems and reading history reports. When things slowed down in the afternoon, our teachers would parade those of us in costume through other classrooms.
I remember the year I rode to school on the bus sitting between Freddy Krueger and a kid with a fake head wound. Had I complained to any adult about the seating arrangements I would have been told to “suck it up, Buttercup.” Telling kids to “suck it up, Buttercup,” is no longer an acceptable way of dealing with children’s feelings. Doing so today may not only get you publicly shamed on social media for mentally abusing a child, but if a florist overhears your comment, he or she may give you a lesson in regards to the rights of buttercups as well.
Those were different times. When I was my son’s age we decorated Easter eggs in art class, brought homemade Valentine’s Day boxes to school, cut Native American headbands out of construction paper for Thanksgiving, performed an annual Christmas musical, and even had Santa Claus visit our classroom. Those traditions are long gone, many of them for good reason. I am sensitive to others’ beliefs and wouldn’t want my or anyone’s children forced to participate in activities they found offensive, but I guess that’s why I thought the Halloween traditions from my childhood would survive. It’s hard for me to see what’s offensive about kids wearing costumes and eating candy.
Today, children have multiple alternatives to traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating. The local high school hosts Trick-or-Treat Street, an indoor event where children shuffle from classroom to classroom like the walking dead, receiving treats from older students. At the front door, parents are required to donate a bag of Halloween candy, which the high school mixes together and simply redistributes. Our local zoo hosts a similar event. Admission is $7, and scary costumes are not allowed. Our local community center sets up an inflatable bouncy house shaped like a spooky castle and does face paintings.
I am okay with all of these events. I am! I just believe they should take place in conjunction with traditional trick-or-treating and not attempt to replace it. They are side dishes of the holiday, not the main course! On Thanksgiving I love eating warm stuffing, corn on the cob, and delicious cranberry sauce, but to serve those things without cooking a turkey seems criminal.
The newest variation is Trunk-or-Treat, an event where parents congregate in parking lots and allow kids to “trick-or-treat” from car to car. This allows kids to dress up and obtain candy while remaining under the watchful eye of their helicopter parents.
“It’s just safer,” said the owner of a minivan who parked next to us the year we tried it. “You can sit right here and watch your kids the entire time.”
“It’s a tragedy, all the neighborhood kids we’ve lost trick-or-treating over the years.” My sarcasm was lost on the minivan owner.
The other thing lost in the parking lot was the sense of freedom I experienced on Halloween night. By the time I was my son’s age my friends and I had graduated from adult escorts, roaming the dark neighborhood together as monsters and devils. We collected candy, scared kids younger than us, and ran for our lives from older teens. The night was scary and exhilarating like a roller coaster, but there was always a safety net. Had things got out of hand, the network of neighborhood mothers would have intervened and a detailed report would have beat us home.
Even if it wasn’t dangerous, Halloween was always a little scary. All of us had heard the horror stories of razor blades hiding inside apples, needles stuck in candy bars, and children being abducted by Satanic cults on Halloween night. In retrospect, it’s funny how those things always happened to friends of friends, anonymous faces in towns that nobody could remember exactly.
According to Snopes.com, a website dedicated to fact checking urban legends, there have been approximately 80 reported cases of sharp objects being inserted into food since 1959. According to their research, “almost all were hoaxes,” and the ones that weren’t turned out to be pranks pulled by friends and siblings. There was a single case in 2000 where a man in Minneapolis was caught inserting needles into full-size candy bars and handing them out on Halloween . The needles were discovered after a teenager bit into one of the candy bars. According to a newspaper article, the teenager was “poked in the mouth.” He didn’t go to the hospital. He wasn’t even seriously injured. The man who had handed out the candy bars was quickly identified and arrested. If there’s one thing any kid can tell you on Halloween night, it’s which house was handing out the full-size candy bars.
But that was one isolated incident in almost 60 years. The odds are far greater that you will win the lottery while simultaneously being attacked by a shark and struck by lightning. For a plastic sack full of free mini Kit-Kat bars, it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
But the death of trick-or-treating isn’t about logic. It isn’t about statistics, or safety, or sending your kids out in the rain. It’s about our culture. It’s about a generation of kids who are afraid to play outside without a parent nearby; whose idea of socializing involves cell phones. It’s about their parents, who grew up watching Unsolved Mysteries, America’s Most Wanted, and Forensic Files, where behind every closed door there’s a pervert or maniac waiting to abduct their children. I was raised to live and let live, but that’s an old fashioned creed. Today, even the slightest perceived injustice, whether it’s slow service at a restaurant or a slip of the tongue uttered in the heat of the moment, require mobilization. It is no longer enough to disagree with something. Boycotts must be organized, online petitions must be signed, demands must be posted and shared with hashtags, and lawsuits must be filed.
The enemy isn’t Halloween.
This year, my son turned fifteen. He’s six-foot-two now, wears a size thirteen shoe, and shaves every morning before school. He says he’s too old to trick-or-treat this year, and I agree. Instead, he wants to stay home and carry on the tradition by handing out candy to trick-or-treaters.
Two years ago only a dozen houses in my neighborhood turned on their porch lights for Halloween. Last year, the number of homes participating dropped in half.
As for me, my light will be on, every year, even after the kids are gone.
Rob O’Hara (RobOHara.com / @Commodork) is the author of Commodork: Sordid Tales from a BBS Junkie and Invading Spaces: A Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Arcade Games. Rob is currently enrolled in the University of Oklahoma’s Master of Professional Writing program, and still dresses up for Halloween.