How’s this for irony? Halloween, which is about being scared out of our boots, has become tamer as the real world sometimes scares us out of our boots.
“We live in a remarkable moment in history,” said Joel Best, an authority on Halloween myths, based on his research going back to 1958. “We have the highest life expectancy, the highest standard of living, the most education. Yet we are obsessed with scenarios of apocalypse,” everything from climate change to nuclear war to asteroid strikes.
“We have a lot of free-floating anxiety about how things would collapse, and children are the walking, talking future. Protecting them is something we can do, and becomes our way of dealing with the fear that this could all fall apart in a nanosecond.”
But good news: Halloween is pretty safe.
How safe? No child has ever died from a random sabotaging of candy collected while trick-or-treating.
Best doesn’t necessarily expect you to believe this fact “because you can’t prove a negative, but neither can you find any evidence that a death actually has occurred.”
A Roseville native, Best is a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware who specializes in social problems and deviance. And no image in American mythology is more deviant than the crazy person who targets costumed children chorusing for candy. Right?
“The Halloween sadist is a particularly colorful figure,” Best said of this imaginary monster, “because on the one hand, he’s so crazy that he kills little kids at random, but so tightly wrapped that he only does it once a year.”
Hmm, when you put it that way. …
It’s impossible to say how many kids still trick-or-treat house-to-house, but an informal Facebook survey suggests that the tradition here is alive and well.
Granted, hardly any kids go without a parental escort, limiting the roaming wolfpack mentality of generations ago.
Numbers also change as neighborhoods shift from young families, to empty nesters, and then back to young families. Sidewalks ease trick-or-treating, but busy streets discourage it.
Some streets cultivate a tradition; St. Paul’s Sargent Avenue has for years attracted hordes. A couple of Facebook respondents noted how Victory Memorial Parkway in Minneapolis, with its sense of contained parkland, attracts hundreds of kids.
And we all know that an early snowfall can have kids trudging in slush, costumes straining over winter coats.
Christine Skluzacek of Montgomery, Minn., calls herself “old-school,” and takes her four boys trick-or-treating from house to house. “We keep going until we are half frozen to death or until we run out of house lights.”
Which brings up a flip-side issue: The growing number of activities and parties results in fewer homeowners staying home to give out candy.
Yet the biggest change may be the monthlong observance of the holiday. Parks and recreation calendars around the metro list dozens of Halloween-themed events. Many business districts sponsor trick-or-treating events, such as the Pumpkin Fest at 50th and France in Edina or Boo Fest along Grand Avenue in St. Paul.
Then there’s trunk-or-treating, popular among churches. Cars, often decorated, are arranged in parking lots, trunks open, with kids going from car to car for candy.
These shifts in trick-or-treating traditions haven’t hurt the Halloween industry, with spending this year on track for a record $9.1 billion, up from $8.4 billion last year.
The National Retail Federation says that 179 million Americans — that’s seven in 10 — plan to celebrate. Of those, 95 percent will buy candy. Seventy percent plan to buy decorations and costumes. Sixteen percent say they will dress up their pets.
Here’s a head-scratcher: Almost four in 10 plan to send Halloween greeting cards.
When ‘fun’ fear became real
At some point, the fear associated with the All Hallow’s Eve began a gradual shift from imaginary to imaginable.
Best said there was no seminal event, although coverage of missing children put parents on high alert year-round. In 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared on his way to his school bus stop in New York City. Then, over three years, 29 bodies of youngsters were discovered in Atlanta before a suspect, Wayne Williams, was arrested and convicted.
National Missing Children’s Day began in 1983. In 1989, Jacob Wetterling disappeared from a rural road in Minnesota 10 days before Halloween.
At the same time, fears about candy embedded with pins or razor blades gained new traction. The popular advice column Ask Ann Landers warned in 1995: “In recent years, there have been reports of people with twisted minds putting razor blades and poison in taffy apples and Halloween candy. It is no longer safe to let your child eat treats that come from strangers.”
Most incidents were hoaxes, Best said, although in 2000, a Minneapolis man was charged with putting needles in Snickers bars and handing them out on Halloween. A 14-year-old boy was pricked by a needle, but did not require medical attention.
Tampering was, for the most part, “fake news,” but initial reports stuck in people’s minds far longer than the eventual explanation of natural causes, accidental contamination or greed.
Of the fewer than 100 instances of apparent tampering over 30 years, most were kids wanting attention or adults seeking to swindle a candymaker, Best said.
Cars are the far greater risk. Safety experts call Halloween the deadliest day of the year for child pedestrian fatalities.
Best, now a grandfather, said we should always keep children safe, but regrets when facts fail to vanquish fear.
“It’s not that people don’t always care about their kids and try to protect them, but we’re obsessing about it in new ways,” he said. “So now we go to the malls, or go trunk-or-treating in parking lots, or only go to houses you know, or inspect treats.
“Then on Nov. 1, we count noses, decide we’re all here, and we don’t have to worry for the next 364 days.”
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185