Folklore: Halloween

Happy Halloween!!
(In three days.)

In terms of folklore, American Halloween--despite claims that it is tied to ancient Celtic and medieval European festivals--is a very recent invention.

Around Victorian times, Halloween in the United States began to involve private parties which would include fortune telling and apple bobbing. Themed costumes entered the picture in the 1900s, but costumes--and for that matter, begging--were associated more with Thanksgiving than with Halloween.

The link of Halloween to costumes and, specifically, to trick-or-treating by children didn't take place until the WWII era. The idea was to reduce adult pranking and general out-of-handness by concentrating on the child aspects of the holiday.

I grew up at the tail-end of this children's-oriented paradise. I remember going trick or treating, carrying pillow cases (none of those cutsy jack o'lantern shaped "bags"--those things aren't even close to big enough!), and I have a vivid recollection of my brothers discussing whether or not to go home and get my little red wagon, so (1) I wouldn't get tired; (2) there would be more room for the candy. When we did get home, we would count, categorize, and trade our candy. (Then, as now, I preferred chocolate to hard candy and just about anything to Baby Ruths.)

And nobody checked it. In fact, not only did nobody check our candy, people gave away seriously uncheckable stuff: soda, homemade caramel popcorn balls. I grew up in pure suburbia, and there were tons of kids on the street and tons of houses ready and waiting to hand out treats.

And then the scares started. Interestingly enough, the big scare--the Candy Man--happened earlier than I had remembered. The Candy Man, the murderer who used doctored Halloween candy to hide killing his own kid, committed his crime in 1974. As a testimony to the power of folklore, by the time I hit my late prepubescence (the early 80's), this isolated incident had taken over people's perception of the holiday. By the time I was twelve, Halloween had become what it is now (more or less): a day for parties, aimed at both children and adults.

Sure, there're still some trick-or-treaters out there, but the holiday does seem to have lost its non-commercial joie de vivre (maybe, I'm just getting old). Many movie buffs credit the 1947 film Meet Me In St. Louis as crystallizing the ideal mid-America old-fashioned Halloween. In the movie, the costumed children meet around a bonfire (in the street!); one of them runs off and pulls a prank (throwing flour at a neighbor man).

My childhood Halloweens didn't involve bonfires or pranks, but I realized, watching the movie, that the costumed children are completely unchaperoned; that freedom was part of my childhood (my childhood was basically Sandlot). Whenever I get trick-or-treaters now, they are almost always accompanied by adults. To be honest, I probably would accompany my kid too if I were a parent. But when I was young, Halloween really was a kids' night--our parents simply expected us to be home before . . . midnight, I guess. My parents weren't careless; they were products of the Depression-era. Since my siblings and I are all still alive, I guess that sense of security (or was it a sense of "if it isn't poverty or a bomb, it won't kill you"?) was justified.

And the truth is, there have been relatively few incidents of children being harmed on Halloween. The Proquest Newspaper search I used to locate the "Candy Man" turned up almost no other incidents of poisoning. I think I read somewhere that more kids are hurt from carelessly crossing the street while trick-or-treating than from "stranger-danger," but that could be propaganda by those companies that sell glow-sticks.

Factually incorrect or not, the surge of poison/razor blade scares had great impact. However, human beings are in general great adapters. Halloween didn't go away; it morphed. After the scares of the 1970's and 80's, at-home types of entertainment became more and more popular: for example, decorating one's house or yard for Halloween. To be technical, these "haunted" or "spook" houses are folk performances rather than folk lore, but with holidays, the two tend to merge: folk performances inform the way the holidays are written and talked about.

Literary/Modern Examples: Children's literature contains some of the best writing about Halloween, namely The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konisburg (Konisburg references the folk performance of the costume parade at school). There is also a reference to Halloween pranking in Ghosts Have I Been by Richard Peck.

For media examples, there are the Monk and Psych episodes that deal with poison candy (the Psych episode just makes a reference, but the Monk episode uses the idea of poison candy as its central mystery).

Also, Home Improvement has several Halloween episodes in which Tim creates a "spook" house. This is part of Tim's repairman-persona; there are also several Christmas episodes where he competes with a neighbor man--not Wilson--on how many lights and elves and electronic reindeer he can put up. Although this seems to be entirely commercial, these types of displays are in fact largely folk-promoted. I could digress here into a discussion of the things people put in their yards, but it would get way off-topic. I mean . . . gnomes?


Joe said...

One of the most complex problems in many businesses (trucking, phones, etc) is least cost routing--how to most efficiently route something from here to there.

Yet, as little kids, that's exactly what we did on Halloween in Indian Hills. We would sit down and plot out the most efficient way to get to the most houses within the evening.

I also marvel how uncontrolled it all was. Very few parents went out. (There were problems at times, but they were generally resolved without hysterically running to the police and/or newspapers.) Then again, most things in that place and time were very laizzez faire compared to today. I do miss that.

Dan said...

Kate, those are some great memories. My neighborhood is similar to Indian Hills and older kids and teens do go out on their own. Lots of parents are out and about but the true sacrilege is the cars! I remember a few cars bringing kids to our house for trick or treating and it offended me greatly. Do these people have no self-respect? You have to earn your candy! You can't just have a parent drive you to it!

I do get a kick watching my kids and their friends trade candy. One year one friend was able to exchange all his candy for about 40 Hershey bars. I believe That kid has a future at Goldman Sachs.

I agree completely that Halloween was a children paradise. This has certainly been lost in the city although I do wonder if that changed before we were kids.

Mike C said...

I'm so Glad you posted this! i was hoping you'd connect Your folklore series with Halloween, as it is, at least in pop culture and the public mind, the holiday most rich with Folklore.

Last night I was already thinking of posing a question to you, on the subject.

Through the years, Vampires and werewolves have been connected to Halloween, and eventually, so has Frankenstein's Monster. Most Vampire or Werewolves movies/mini series that have come out in the last 10 years or so have usually feature all Three: Vampires, Werewolves, and Frankenstien's Monster ("Van Helsing", for example. While there are many without all three (and many of those focus on the idea of Werewolf/Vampire rivalry) it's interesting to me that two products of Legend/folklore are so often teamed up with an Icon of Literature and Film.

To be fair, Dracula is also a literary figure later turned film star, which leaves only the wolf man that may be the only figure to achieve fame only by movies (unless there is a classical Werewolf novel that I missed).

But my question was just to ask what you think of this? Do you think this is just a trend and homage to the big Movie blockbuster meetings of the golden days, society blending old folklore with new, or merely a money making scheme?

Kate Woodbury said...

Here's the history that I know!

Vampires and Frankenstein (the monster, that is) entered pop culture around the 1930s—pre-WWII. Black & white monster movies were huge! (In the hilarious black & white Arsenic and Old Lace, people keep commenting on how the evil brother looks like Boris Karloff, i.e. Frankenstein; in fact, the character was supposed to be played by Boris Karloff, but Karloff had stage commitments and couldn't do the film). Having said that, I don't know when Dracula, Wolfman, and Frankenstein entered Halloween culture. According to my notes, black witch costumes didn't enter the culture until 1939, so I'm assuming the link between monsters and Halloween didn't happen until then or later.

In the 1980s, many "spook" houses, especially those near Hollywood, paid homage to the "classics." By then, vampires and Frankenstein were pretty much considered staples of Halloween culture. (Like you, Mike, I'm a little less certain of werewolves; they are presented as classic, but I can't think of a classic novel or black & white movie about werewolves. I did discover that Sabine Baring-Gould wrote about werewolves: he was an English folklore/spiritual hymn collector in the late 19th/early 20th century, so that at least dates werewolves to the same era as Dracula!) I would call all these figures "cultural phenomenons"--Dracula and Frankenstein('s monster), specifically, entered the culture through literature and film and then merged into the folk culture.

I love the classics! The costumes that throw me are the pre-fab kit costumes from a store, and I think those are more about making money (Buzz Lightyear; Jack Sparrow). When I was growing up we had the BOX in the basement. If you were a costume short, you went and dug through the BOX. There was the race car driver, SuperDog, etc. Like Dan says, we had to work for our candy! None of this pre-fab stuff. (Obviously, if you look at my photos, that isn't completely true, but it was more true than not! We certainly didn't buy kits.)

I don't really have a problem with commercialization—in general. (I LOVE Christmas.) Just Halloween seems to have lost the ingenuity of yesteryears. But that could be because Halloween is so party-oriented these days, and I hate parties (really—my idea of hell is a cocktail party and anything like unto it: sitting around eating cheese bits, holding a drink, and talking to people about nothing. Blech!).

What I wonder about is when did The Wizard of Oz get linked to Halloween? I was a grown adult before I realized The Wizard of Oz was traditionally shown on Halloween. Does that still happen? (I guess the connection would be the witches. Or the monkeys. Oooh, the monkeys do scare me.)

Kate Woodbury said...

Also, I posted some Halloween photos! The bunny costume is obviously pre-fab, but Dan's SuperDog costume was from the Box. The gypsy costume was completely my own! The Leia costume was half my mother's creation and half pre-fab (the little buns were made out of plastic). Yes, I was a total Star Wars fan: I was Leia one year and Luke the next! (That's the not-real light saber that I got for Christmas that SOOO disappointed me because I actually thought my parents would get me a real one: kids are very strange.) The pioneer costume was for Pioneer Day, but it was also kept in the Box. The wizard costume was entirely homemade (that's me at a school costume parade).

Mike C said...

You Know, it's funny you Mention the "Wizard of Oz" cause I was wondering that myself this year... maybe because of the DVD release that happened right around Halloween this year. My Class at school (all he adults) decided that we would wear Wizard of Oz themed costumes (I made a tin man costume out of Duct tape... I'll e-mail you the pic). The best I can figure about the link between Oz and halloween is the witch theme as well.

Anonymous said...

Kate--I just emailed you an opinion piece by Carl Strock addressing the "Halloween bogeyman." I also just reviewed a book on Halloween that mentioned kids going to the local hospital to have x-rays taken of their candy!

Kate Woodbury said...

The opinion piece Ann sent me is well-worth reading! Here are some highlights:

Imagine yourself, a sober modern American, trucking down to your local hospital with a sack of Tootsie Rolls, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Three Musketeer bars, with your adorable little ghosts and goblins in tow, and asking a technician to fire up a $100,000 piece of equipment so he can scan your trove of sugary fat and make sure it's safe for your little ones to eat.

Incredible, no?

Actually, hospitals don't do that anymore, if they ever did.

In any event, the danger is largely imaginary. The rumor-checking Website reported research on "80 cases of sharp objects in food incidents since 1959, and almost all were hoaxes," mostly perpetrated by kids to spook other kids or their parents.

It's "essentially an urban legend," Snopes said, noting that the tales of needles and razor blades began to supplant rumors of poison in candy in the mid-1960s.

[I didn't realize it was so early! Thanks, Ann!!]

marshymallow said...

Actually, I live with a nurse who was just talking about that. Perhaps we are the exception, but the hospitals here still do that.