Hands off Halloween

October 31, 1997|By Marianne Means

WASHINGTON -- It's the Halloween season again, bringing with it a growing ''family values'' struggle over the commercial and social implications of not only pint-sized goblins wandering the streets with candy bags but all those masked adult revelers as well.

It's a wonder Dan Quayle hasn't discovered this one.

The cultural wars found Halloween a few years ago and elevated what used to be simple fun into a holiday complicated by intense psycho-babble, religious messages and moralistic posturing.

Hell houses

Across the country many fundamentalist churches are trying to muscle into the festivities by scaring the kiddies with visions of the flames of hell. Some of these churches are taking advantage of Halloween's pagan traditions to preach the virtues of clean living.

One example is a church-sponsored ''Hell House,'' a program with lectures against, and depictions of, abortion, murder and suicide. Other churches can duplicate the program by ordering a $150 kit with instructions.

In some locations, schools and churches try to discourage trick-or-treating by holding children's parties that impose a dress code forbidding scary costumes or those that might be ethnically or politically offensive. That outlaws Frankenstein monsters and witches, long a Halloween staple, and the rare hobo as well. But beyond that, the guidelines get mushy, if not downright silly.

A proliferation of beautiful princesses and brave knights is undoubtedly desired here. But self-induced shivers may be far preferable to gooey glamour.

My own granddaughter is dressing for the occasion as Darth Vader, her days as a docile orange pumpkin now behind her. Does that qualify her as intolerably scary or is she only mildly menacing, coming as she does from a galaxy far away?

Supervised indoor activities are becoming popular as a way to sanitize the event and reduce fears about poisoned chocolates handed out to trick-or-treaters. It is yet to be proved whether these artificial occasions appeal to children as much as knocking on unfamiliar doors to get free candy.

Some communities are handing out badges to help people identify local kids and deny free candy to strangers supposedly out for a rip-off. It is a harsh world, however, when Halloween-friendly souls slam the door on eager unbadged but costumed tykes from other neighborhoods with nothing more dangerous than a little free treat on their minds.

Yet the biggest recent change in Halloween has been the renewed adult interest in behaving foolishly while hiding behind a mask. After all, why should children have all the fun? The joy of dressing up does not end when people get beyond their teens.

For several years, Halloween has been the second-biggest revenue source for retail stores (trailing only Christmas), as consumers flock to buy $50 costumes and assorted gimmicks rTC attesting to childhood fantasies and arrested adolescence. The streets of Washington and other major cities are filled at 'N Halloween with jovial adults partying away in a manner that would surely be admired by the ancient Celts, who dressed up to fool the ghouls on the first night of winter.

Festival roots

Despite a few broken beer bottles and minor altercations with the cops, this seems like a relatively harmless new addiction, a way to relieve tensions and shake off crippling inhibitions.

And it is certainly good for business. A National Retail Federation study reports that 65 percent of adults polled planned to participate in Halloween activities this year and 68 percent planned to spend up to $50 on it. Some 63 percent of adults planned to decorate their homes for Halloween.

Yet, some church leaders remain horrified by the fact that Halloween has its roots in a festival for the god of the dead that originated roughly 1,500 years ago, before reading and writing and civilized thought.

Occult worship

They fear Satan's influence on modern life and point to the seven Pearl, Miss., high school boys who dabbled in the occult before setting off a recent shooting spree. So far as anyone knows, however, Druids and Celts have not been functioning religious institutions challenging present-day values for something like 50 generations.

Halloween has become a secular celebration, uncomplicated by the overt religious messages of Christmas, Hanukkah and Easter. The spoilsports who want to politicize the holiday and wring the fun out of it are not going to do family values a favor.

It is not necessary to eliminate good times and laughter in order to be a moral person, in costume or out. Happy Halloween.

Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/31/97

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