Halloween and Its Discontents

Let’s get right to it:  there is no need to make children beg for treats on one night every year.  The supply of candy is constant, or anyway abundant, the whole year round; and it’s probably much cheaper and more convenient—not to mention less imposing—to purchase your own stash than to participate in our yearly night of ritualized extortion. But every year we do it:  the costumes, the bulk-size bags of candy, the kitsch and the shabby horrorshow of plastic decorations, just so children can dress up and interrupt our dinners with their fidgety demands of “trick or treat.”

In my day at least, the threat of the trick or the treat had meaning. Every year, at every doorstep, we’d recite the following verse in the bratty singsong register you expect from playground bullies:

Trick or treat, smell my feet,
Give me something good to eat;
If you don’t, I don’t care:
I’ll pull down your underwear!

Today the risk-averse young and their safety-first parents would never dare inflict such menace on their neighbors. Today they can’t be bothered to recite more than the first three words, let alone make it to the stanza’s third and fourth lines. Some of these kids are starting to act like they deserve the candy just by being there. They stick out their grubby little hands and expect a piece of fun-sized candy that’s no different from what all the other households have—including, of course, their own. The only “trick” involved is our collective lie that we find the neighbors’ children cute and worthy of reward.

The origins of Hallowe’en were far more sinister and pagan. The ancient Celts believed that on the 31st of October, the souls of the dead were loosed to roam the world of the living. This had a basis in material fact: the festivals of Samhain and Calan Gaeaf marked the passage of harvest season into the desolate cold of winter. The ancients knew that they were at the mercy of these liminal forces; lest misfortune befall them, the appetites of the dead would have to be appeased. And so began a venerable rite of masked marauders dressing up to rob their neighbors.

That’s the official story, anyway. These days, Halloween is little more than an excuse to induce headaches in parents hunting down the latest costumes for their young, to instill a moral panic among Evangelicals about the “Devil’s birthday,” and to subsidize the dental industry.  In older milieux, it’s an excuse to dress in sexed-up versions of one’s childhood regalia, or to make one look as ridiculous as one is drunk. Halloween has been thoroughly defanged. There’s none of that sense of menace, that mischievous subtext hidden in the spirit of “trick or treat”—that for one night every year, the wellbeing of the landowners is really at the mercy of the hungry and the damned.

In fact, a sort of reversal has taken place. The children dress as superheroes or fairy princesses, while the landowners turn their houses into fortresses of horror. The little child, dressed as Tinker Bell or Wonder Woman, can barely make it to the porch before being startled into tears by some automated zombie in the bushes, while her parents snicker on the sidewalk; if she braves it through, the weeping child will be greeted at the door by some hulking Dracula, to reward her for her efforts. This is no longer a celebration of our shared mortality, nor a reminder of the fleetingness of wealth and security. This is a ritualized technology for the social reproduction of class.

The class-inflected character of Halloween should be obvious. Everyone knows the rich have the best candy, but the only ones who get it are those already in their vicinity. Like public education, the quality of one’s loot bag is determined by property values. Then there is, of course, the contest of procuring the best costumes, which gives the lie to the idea that Halloween is some great equalizer.

But in a deeper sense, the ritual of trick-or-treating is a tool for indoctrinating children in class hierarchy and discipline. From an early age, they’re taught to dress themselves in cutesy disguises, or to make themselves into monstrous ghouls, for the pleasure and delight of those with property. They are acclimated to this debased and undignified existence, living on the hand-outs of the propertied, whom they make sure to thank politely on the way out. The bourgeoisie no longer fear the tricks of the hungry and the damned. It’s not simply the case that the young have grown complacent with their treats, but that they aren’t, more importantly, even trying.

Today a class compromise has been reached, where the bourgeoisie agree to play along with this ritual begging, and the children’s knack for mischief atrophies. But there may come a day when the ruling class no longer tolerates our yearly redistribution of sweets. A day when the wretched of the earth no longer may subsist on their concessions. And when that evil day comes, we’ll have no choice but to do what should’ve been done already, which is to seize the means of confectionery production.

 

Los Angeles, 2017.

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