The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
  • Horizon Section


    On a specially designated evening in October 1917, groups of local boys went from door to door at a village called Laguna Pueblo. Just as occurs in many American neighborhoods today, Parsons reportedly heard special ritual chants from the children. One of her colleagues supplied the full text of one of them:

    Oremos, oremos
    Angelitos somos,
    Del cielo venemos.
    Si no nos dan,
    Puertas y ventanas quebramos.

    (Let us pray, let us pray/We are little angels/From heaven we come./If you don't give to us,/Doors and windows we will break!)

    Laguna people, the colleague said, were taking the chant from the Roman Catholic Church's All Saints' Day celebrations, but the whole ritual was more than just Catholic. Other ceremonies also tied Laguna beliefs about life and death with rituals that originated in the Laguna sacred order.

    European colonizers clearly influenced the 1917 "Halloween" practice, but it also was closely connected with the Laguna Pueblo way of life.

    Hence the various rituals for keeping the departed involved in the present world through seances, graveside visits, prayer or other communication. Ideas about an afterlife or notions of ghosts and vampires also can be understood as attempts to challenge the finality and fear surrounding human mortality.

    Ritual Reversals

    Cultures have ways to challenge death but have a hard time beating it. Likewise, no culture has eliminated misfortune and evil, though humans keep trying. Typical American methods are control and avoidance-locking up, shutting out, buckling up, watching out, staying away.

    Yet on Halloween, scary things suddenly are embraced wholeheartedly, brought to front porches and displayed. And children, those innocents whom we most want to protect from death and danger, are an integral part of the annual ritual.

    At Halloween, Americans are doing something that all human beings do—confronting the unknown with special symbols and rituals.

    For a while, we pull these fearful and painful realities into a relatively contained and public context. We share them with our children. We create a special and safe moment during which danger and death, skeletons and strangers can safely be part of our experience. Then we lock our doors again and return to our everyday, safe American lives. Halloween reverses the usual order of many things in many ways.

    Anthropologists have analyzed rituals of reversal in settings around the world. Days when the living walk around as if dead, and the dead are thought to walk around as if living, are not that unusual. In fact, Halloween can be seen as the American inversion ritual par excellence.

    During rituals of inversion, people can violate otherwise solid social codes. Less powerful people can break the rules, reverse the order of expected actions, flaunt otherwise unacceptable ways of dress or behavior or reverse the usual roles of parent-child, boss-worker, male-female.

    Thus, it is common to see groups of children "threatening" adults for candy. Everyday people don masks of the famous. Adults dress like children and children like adults. Pranks and mockery ordinarily not allowed become commonplace.

    In the past, many anthropologists focused on the conservative functions of rituals, considering the reversals a sort of social pressure-release valve. In this view, the Halloween ritual means something like:

    "Let the children eat as much candy as they want, let the poor be rich, let the dead walk the Earth, let us get scared out of our wits and let us make fun of those we usually must respect. Afterward, we'll be better able to cope with, and settle for, our usual lives."

    children in pumpkin suits
    Celebrating youngsters create their own pumpkin patch. (The Post)
    But that doesn't get at the power of ritual to make everyday life different.

    More recently, anthropologists have shown that maintaining the status quo is not the only result of rituals of reversal. The rituals can actually reshape the usual order of things.

    For instance, the gay community has actively used the holiday to assert a new and more visible social presence and power. The fantasy elements of masquerade, which temporarily permit one to be virtually whomever he or she wants to be, can foster true personal liberation and change. Playing a Halloween prank on a too-serious boss may change the tone of the office after the holiday.

    The ritual reversals of Halloween also have potential power for children, serving as an opportunity to go to the door of the spooky house, visit a graveyard or visit the otherwise not-too-friendly neighbor.

    Nevertheless, Halloween is still profoundly about sociability and norms. Reversals must fall within socially prescribed boundaries. Pranks and jokes are not supposed to cause permanent harm. Children are expected to say thank you at the door. Halloween can reinforce neighborliness and pro-social behavior.

    Horror Stories

    The symbols and rituals of Halloween link disorder and danger with cultural ideas about order and safety. But chaos still lurks, in reality or, much more often, in durable legends.

    Virtually everyone has heard at least one story about poison or razor blades in apples, hypodermics in candy or dangerous items in grab bags. Each year, these stories are revived, and precautions are taken. Some call for an end to trick-or-treating, many parents allow children to visit only homes of people they know and many hospitals provide free candy X-ray service. Every year, new horror stories emerge, and old ones are retold.

    Many social analysts have reasoned that these stories, while often thought true, are really examples of "urban legends" in the making, much the same as accounts of giant alligators in city sewers or rodents in soft-drink bottles. Horrible Halloween incidents occur occasionally. But how many people have firsthand evidence of someone hurt by Halloween candy? Seen in context, our fears about dangerous treats often seem more like ritual retellings than strictly rational worries.

    Shopping malls and many schools now offer a "safe" alternative to neighborhood trick-or-treating so children will not be exposed to presumed danger. Local customs have changed accordingly. A resident of Severn, Md., says that "no one hands out any homemade items or home-filled treat bags, knowing that, when the children get home, their parents will" trash those items.

    Strictly speaking, however, one should have no more reason to trust mall shopkeepers, whom the family does not know personally, than to mistrust people a few blocks away in another neighborhood. But the warnings and annual repetition of horror stories are expressions of society's profound belief that the world is a scary place for children, who need protection, especially from individual, unaffiliated strangers.

    The Market for Fright

    As a result, tension often is genuine between the trick-or-treat tradition and increasingly mobile, unstable neighborhoods with perceived "stranger danger." The marketplace has jumped to deal with such fears by minimizing the unknown.

    For example, every Burger King restaurant looks alike and every "treat" dispensed there is exactly what parents expect. So a Burger King executive told a food-industry trade magazine last year that "increasingly, it is more of a challenge for parents to provide a controlled, safe, fun experience. And taking kids to Burger King to get a Halloween-themed toy is . . . a safe alternative for kids."

    Recently, retailers have offered worried parents free bagels in Pittsburgh, 99-cent "monster eyes" with purchase of a Taco Bell meal and glow-in-the-dark treat buckets from Jack in the Box. All are part of what makes Halloween a $2.5 billion bonanza for retailers.

    Moreover, this is part of a larger message. Through Halloween safety reminders and sponsored activities, children are taught that schools, hospitals, organizations and retail establishments have their interests at heart while individuals in homes do not.

    What effect such beliefs might have on American culture remain to be seen. But they accord nicely with one of the two major contemporary shifts in American Halloween celebration. One is a transformation of the homemade neighborhood character of the event to one framed by institutions, corporations and consumer culture.

    Because both adults and children participate and because the event involves decorations, candy, costumes and many other consumer products, Halloween is a marketer's dream, reported to be the fastest-growing retail season. Market researchers say 78 percent of households distributed treats in 1996. Halloween ranks as the leading holiday for U.S. candy sales, ahead of Christmas for the $20 billion annual U.S. confection industry.

    Tita Rutledge, owner of a Baltimore costume shop, says the two weeks surrounding Halloween generate one-third of her store's total annual income. House and party decorations sell briskly nationwide. Holiday packaging, on cereal, for instance, and product tie-ins from costumes to coupons increase every year. "Slasher" movies light up the marquees; mock haunted houses for neighborhood fun or organizational profit pop up from coast to coast.


    The second major trend in U.S. Halloween customs is an increasing tendency to regard the holiday as one also for adults. Halloween has joined New Year's Eve and Super Bowl Sunday as the most popular party dates for American adults. As one shop owner summed up the situation: "Halloween is becoming more of an adult holiday. Parents don't want their kids out trick-or-treating, so they have more time for themselves."

    Anthropologists expect customs and cultural traditions to change over time. Baltimore provides an interesting nearby example of the way Halloween seems to be melding with other, primarily adult, events.

    One is the Maryland Renaissance Festival, now in its 22nd consecutive year. The festival, which occurs on weekends for two months preceding Halloween, encourages costuming, and some buying and renting by adults is done for the festival. Another such event is a local novelty, the Halloween wedding.

    Rutledge describes outfits she made for a Halloween wedding last year. The bride wore a red velvet dress a la Queen Isabella of Spain, and the groom wore matching doublet and tights. The father of the bride was festooned in a blue velvet tunic, tights and boots. The bride's mother appeared in a yellow underdress with blue brocade top. The noble nature of the costume choices made a good fit for a wedding, where high style and ceremonial dress are already the rule.

    A manager at Baltimore's A&M Costume Gallery also cites increased Halloween wedding business, though she describes the typical mode as bride and groom dressed in conventional white while guests are costumed for Halloween.

    Rutledge also describes a Cinderella Halloween wedding featuring glass slippers and gold painted pumpkins.

    Over time, will such intermingling and merging of celebrations result in new Halloween stories? Will researchers soon examine evidence and imagine that Halloween was the Celtic time for marriages? Will we see a direct connection between "who-will-I-marry?" divination games once popular as a Halloween activity and Halloween wedding parties?

    New forms of Halloween seem to be burgeoning, particularly in urban areas where anthropologists often seek rapid cultural change.

    Halloween is a continually fascinating aspect of the constantly changing social world and of human's seemingly boundless capacity to invent traditions, confront danger and death in novel ways and remake symbols to fit new realities.

    Ken C. Erickson, an anthropologist, is director of the Center for Ethnographic Research at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

    Patricia Sunderland is an anthropologist with B/R/S Group, Inc., a consumer research firm.

    Page One

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar