The Passion of the Pumpkin

Who killed Halloween?


Say a prayer, a spell, or a demonic incantation for Halloween. This October, as in past Octobers, many schools are refusing to celebrate the holiday. Others have recast it as "Fall-o-Ween" or "Orange and Black Day" or, in words carefully calibrated to be as generic as possible, the "Fall Festival." In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, one councilman—nominally a Republican, but spiritually a member of the Everything Not Prohibited Is Compulsory Party—has reacted with a resolution to require his county's schools to hold Halloween parties.

I don't approve of his solution, but I understand his aggravation. The War on Halloween, as The Denver Post's David Harsanyi has dubbed it, unites some of the most obnoxious elements of the left, the right, and the center—a Halloween coalition of Halloween-haters. Lined up like that, they demonstrate the most essential fact about the culture war. It doesn't really pit the left against the right. It pits the culture warriors against everyone else.

So who's trying to drive the devil from the public square? First there are the fundamentalists. Not all the fundamentalists—just the ones who think All Hallows Eve is Satan's annual pledge drive. Some of them shun the holiday altogether. Some create alternative institutions, such as hell houses, which are what you get if you mash-up a Jonathan Edwards sermon with a conventional haunted house. The craftiest ones infiltrate the festivities, giving trick-or-treaters Jack Chick comic-book tracts with their sweets. The Chickites hate Halloween with a passion they ordinarily reserve for Ouija boards and Jesuits, but they recognize the holiday as a "once-a-year witnessing opportunity."

All of which is fine and good. Halloween is all about fear, and a solid fire-and-brimstone sermon is as chilling as a Hammer horror film festival. But while hard-core Christians enrich our culture with their creepy alternative Halloweens, they also pressure officials to take the holiday away from everyone else, at least during school hours.

So do the witches. Not all the witches—just the ones who think All Hallows Eve is the church's annual minstrel show. When the Puyallup School District in Washington state banned in-school Halloween celebrations three years ago, one of the justifications it offered was the possibility that real witches would be offended. "Witches with pointy noses and things like that are not respective symbols of the Wiccan religion," a spokesperson told KOMO-TV, "and so we want to be respectful of that." A few years earlier, the station reported, a school official declared in an internal email that "administrators should not tolerate such inappropriate stereotyping (images such as Witches on flying brooms, stirring cauldrons, casting spells, or with long noses and pointed hats) and instead address them as you would hurtful stereotypes of any other minority."

Wiccans have lodged actual complaints to that effect, not just in Puyallup but in other West Coast communities. But I can't imagine that this opinion is popular in the larger world of witchcraft. I know several Wiccans myself, and some of them sometimes give the impression that they only joined up for the Halloween parties. Besides, most modern witches are aware that their religion isn't really a remnant from the old times: It was probably invented in the 1950s, and it didn't really take on its current characteristics until a bunch of feminists, environmentalists, and science fiction fans got involved in the '70s. That "inappropriate stereotyping" that set off the Puyallup official is actually older than the faith itself.

So the anti-Halloween front includes a minority branch of Christianity and a minority branch of Wicca. Sometimes it brings in easily affronted people of other religious orientations, including Muslims and militant atheists. But the alliance's most important members are driven by fear, not faith. They're the key to the coalition: the risk-averse bureaucrats.

Where the fundamentalists would like to see Halloween eliminated entirely and the Wiccans would replace it with a two-day teach-in about the Burning Times, the bureaucrats merely want to drain all the blood from it, eliminating anything that might offend somebody or give a parent something to worry about. Many would be happy to keep Halloween around as long as the witches wear bicycle helmets instead of dangerously pointy hats. Barring that, they'll sadly sacrifice a school's celebrations altogether, suggesting softly as they wield the knife that it's all for the best, really; all those costumes and candies were distracting the kids from their lessons. (The Washington Post reports that the anti-Halloween trend has been "accelerated" by No Child Left Behind, since holiday parties do nothing to prepare students for standardized tests. A few weeks after he exorcised Halloween from the Puyallup curriculum, the local superintendent declared that what really "resonated" for him was the need to "work hard every day to protect the instructional day from distractions and interruptions.")

And you know what? I can appreciate their dilemma. As long as the government's schools are monopolies capable of compelling attendance, they have to respect the many worldviews of the children that attend them. In a country as diverse as this one, it isn't always obvious where the line lies between making minorities comfortable and acting like a goddamn jackass. The typical bureaucrat prefers to err on the side of jackassery.

Unfortunately, the typical bureaucrat has an exaggerated influence over the holiday. Over the last three decades, Halloween has been migrating indoors. Trick or treating is far from dead, but it has been battered by a series of scares over contaminated candy and fruit containing razor blades: urban legends that parents find much spookier than those earlier myths of vampires and ghosts. The sociologist Joel Best, a specialist in moral panics, has been unable to find a single verified example of poisoned Halloween treats, and those alleged blades and needles almost invariably turn out to be hoaxes; the tiny handful that weren't have inflicted only minor injuries. But that hasn't dampened the fears. Add the other anxieties of the day, from sex predators to street crime, and it's no wonder that Halloween's center has been shifting, ever so gradually, from the neighborhood sidewalks to the neighborhood school. That gives public officials more power over the ways children celebrate the holiday, and that inevitably means more caution and political correctness.

But you can't extinguish the call of the carnivalesque. Despite these trials, Halloween generates roughly $5 billion each year, and that number is climbing. That money is buying more than just Snickers bars and kid-sized Spider-Man costumes. October 31 has grown increasingly popular among adults—that is, among people old enough to evade the authority of the schools. With no superintendents to suppress them, grown-up Halloween parties tend to be enjoyably decadent, or at least attempt to project an air of decadence. There's not much any Halloween-hating Grinch can do about that.

If anything, the Halloween-bashers play an important role. In a holiday that thumbs its nose at authority and celebrates the id, it's valuable to have some suitably spoofable superegos on hand. When someone says, "Halloween is too divisive to celebrate at school," there's a second, silent sentence lurking right below the surface. It's "Please TP my lawn."

Jesse Walker is reason's managing editor.