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Who hijacked Halloween?

The Memory

When I was a kid, Halloween was a night of freedom, fun, and candy. Our parents never accompanied us. We were neighborhood kids, and this was our community.

Years later, when I had a child of my own, some aspects of the holiday had changed. A parent always accompanied each group of kids. Neighborhoods were more spaced out and the danger from cars increased.

What didn’t change is the excitement my son felt — his costume carefully thought out and prepared. He eagerly waited for dusk and the festivities to begin. I loved hearing the sound of my son squeal with unadulterated glee as we went door to door with our family, including our dog and many others. On Halloween we were ALL family no matter our race, politics, or socioeconomics.

The moms would dress up as witches to greet us with hot cider. At one house a mummy propped up on a bench came alive when we rang the doorbell. This wasn’t some machine, but rather a real person scaring the wits out of us! Cul-de-sacs became block parties. Other adults in our neighborhood stood around bonfires, some enjoying Devil’s Grog or maybe a stogie. The night was a celebration!

As a mother in her 60s who has lived in Connecticut nearly my entire life, I have experienced Halloween as a child, parent, and neighbor. Over that time, I have seen Halloween change from my favorite holiday to another sad example of community fear and division. In the past there were so many children we ran out of candy and had to resort to giving out quarters and apples. As the years went by, we began to have a lot of candy left over at the end of the night. Only a few older teens were trick-or-treating at our house. Eventually, we stopped needing candy altogether; children don’t come to our door anymore.

What’s changed? For one thing, I have! As executive director of a statewide non-profit that speaks out against the injustice of marginalized people, I see up close the societal and human cost of irrational fear and how it erodes the strength of our communities. Such fears lead to public policies that are destructive and ineffective, costing precious taxpayer resources and doing more harm than good.

The Myths

Urban legends abound during Halloween. Some are harmless, but others cause extreme reactions from parents to imaginary dangers. In 1970, the New York Times published an article claiming Halloween goodies could bring “more horror than happiness.” It spread fears of candy-tampering that were fueled by the era’s social upheaval and the sense that neighbors could no longer be trusted. The resulting rumor panic ended homemade Halloween treats for children and led to “safe” spaces at trunk-or-treat events or the malls.

Yet researchers have found zero instances of a stranger killing or seriously injuring a child with Halloween candy, and the Times itself has admitted its mistake.  However, other media outlets continue to spread this myth because it “sells papers,” (or drives clicks) which creates more fear, which leads to more mythical stories, which sells more papers.