Ghosts bad and good Essay: Halloween has passed from pagans to children to adults, and in and out of favor.

October 31, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Halloween is the eve of the ancient Celtic festival Samhain, and the time when the Mexican people welcome the dead into their homes or visit cemeteries for jolly fiestas. In the United States, it is the only day on our calendar with reference to the supernatural not condoned by our established religions.

For some reason some people don't like it.

Halloween emerged as a pagan holiday in the forests of northern Europe, like Christmas. But unlike Christmas, it has never been convincingly sanctified. It still evokes images of demons and ghosts, rather than of saints and the holy Christian dead.

But Halloween has changed much in recent years. Once a folk holiday animated by the purposeful manufacture of ersatz fear, it has been subverted by the real thing. Where imaginary ghosts and witches once roamed, actual muggers skulk and pedophiles prowl.

Many older people can remember when, as children, they ran unsupervised through the streets on Halloween night flushed and happy, out to satisfy what G.K. Chesterton called "the healthy lust for darkness and terror " Mischief was to be expected. After all, the devil was at our elbow.

To a child back then, to be unwatched and at large in the night, secure in the anonymity of mask and costume, offered a buoyant pleasure. Like a pickup game of baseball on a vacant lot, it was something created by children for themselves, always the seed of a more durable memory than anything ever planted by Little League, which bright children know is only parental control one step removed.

These days, many people are apprehensive when they contemplate the streets on All Hallows' Eve. On any night, actually. They are convinced life is more chancy now just about everywhere, and maybe it is. If you believe there are more people around these days with evil intentions, then Halloween night must be seen as a time when the streets are full of potential victims.

Some banned it

What to do? Guard your child; supervise all trick-or-treating? Discourage or ban it entirely, as several towns in Carroll County have done? Manchester, Taneytown and New Windsor are far removed from the aberrational violence that so frightens city people, but they haven't had trick-or-treating up there for years.

Originally, most objections to the old practice came from the elderly who didn't like answering the door bell time after time through the night. Then there was the fear of vandalism.

Rebecca Harman, a town councilwoman in New Windsor, says that before trick or treating was banned seven years ago, it had turned into a form of harassment of the elderly. "People came in from out of town in vans and even trucks. They swarmed over the town. They were all ages, not just little children. They were harassing people and when they didn't get a treat, they did some mean things."

In Carroll County in general, the celebration of Halloween has virtually disappeared within the schools.

The same is true in other parts of the country, from Illinois, to Iowa to California. Many people object to the holiday's non-Christian dimension -- which is to say its essence. Its allusion to the occult frightens them.

Fear is a leitmotif of modern life. Fear was always an element of Halloween. But it was the thrilling, pleasurable terror of the unknown. Today people know quite well what they are afraid of: the malevolent stranger, the child suddenly not there, the disturbed soul sliding razor shards and needles into apples and candy.

To neutralize this latter threat, many hospitals around the country will willingly X-ray any kid's Halloween haul. Union Memorial Hospital has been doing it in Baltimore for almost a decade. But, according to Margaret Jones of the radiology department, they've never found a sabotaged treat.


Much has been done to transform Halloween into something other than what it really is, an invention of custom and culture, a prehistoric new year's celebration suffused with magical belief. In the process it has been sanitized, de-ritualized, sentimentalized, over-organized by PTAs, exploited by Hollywood, anathematized by fundamentalist Christians, and even politically corrected.

The Iowa City School District last year condemned costumes of Gypsies, Indians, hobos and devils as insensitive, likely to give offense to Gypsies, Indians and hobos, maybe even to devils.

Halloween has been vitiated by an excess of good intentions. The principal of Phelps Luck Elementary School in Howard County advised all parents last month that costumes for Halloween should be restricted to those representing characters in story books. Wrote the principal: "Costumes that depict a violent or morbid character are prohibited from being worn at Phelps Luck."

No mirthful morbidity? No dancing skeletons? Dogs can have their day, but not the dead?

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