Season of the Regulator

The killjoys come out on Halloween.


If you're a kid, Halloween is a time to be scared of witches, werewolves, and the undead. If you're an adult, it's a time to be scared of child snatchers, serial killers, and easily offended members of the PTA. When children get frightened, they squeal, scream, or huddle under the covers. When grown-ups get frightened, they pass laws. Here's a quick, far from exhaustive list of the dubious ways the authorities are now policing All Hallow's Eve.

Misleading the parents. Frightening people is part of the point of Halloween, and maybe it's churlish of me to suggest the government shouldn't be able to do it too. But as fun as a good ghost story can be, I wish the authorities would refrain from spreading urban legends about the dangers of trick-or-treating. When courts or cops set up a free x-ray station for kids' candy, they send the message that we should really be worried about foreign objects in the loot.

We shouldn't. There are just a few scattered cases in the last half century of pins or needles being found in Halloween treats. The vast majority turned out to be pranks or hoaxes, and none led to more than minor injuries; your children are more likely to drown in a bucket than to be hurt by a blade in an apple or a candy bar. And for all the yarns you've heard about neighborhood supervillains plotting to put poison in their candy, there isn't a single recorded case of it happening. The closest anyone has found is a crime in 1974 when a boy's Pixy Stix was doused with cyanide. But the culprit turned out to be his own dad.

Yet no matter how many times people have tried to kill those scare stories, the tales keep shambling forward. At least one sheriff's department—in Washoe County, Nevada—offers its x-ray services not just to trick-or-treaters but to families "interested in getting their candy checked prior to handing it out." To protect against…what? Tampering at the supermarket? Should we get the local health department involved in this too? How about the USDA?

Hiding the sex offenders. In the last few years those traditional tales of poisoned apples have been joined by a different fear: that trick-or-treaters will be assaulted by pedophiles. It's an unlikely scenario, since trick-or-treaters rarely travel alone and are not ordinarily invited into strangers' houses. And sure enough, when a 2009 study in Sex Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment looked at when nonfamilial sex crimes against children take place, the authors concluded that "no increased rate on or just before Halloween was found, and Halloween incidents did not evidence unusual case characteristics." The researchers then questioned "the wisdom of diverting law enforcement resources to attend to a problem that does not appear to exist."

Nonetheless, authorities around the country have fought the phantom threat in a variety of ways, up to and including rounding up all the sex offenders in one Texas county and storing them in the Adult Probation Office for the evening. In Maryland, offenders have been required to post a paper pumpkin on the door with the message "NO CANDY AT THIS RESIDENCE." More frequently, jurisdictions have told offenders not to put up anything Halloween-related at all. "The main thing we're looking for is to make sure we do not have any type of Halloween decorations, anything that's going to attract the children to want to come to their house and to trick or treat there," one El Paso cop explained to KTSM-TV. The station then straight-facedly reported that "police say they hope a similar program will be implemented for the Christmas season." ("To stave off the rampant assaults of carolers, perhaps?" cracks the blogger Scott Henson.)

Kicking out the teens. The Samhein sex offender scare is an absurd diversion of police resources, but it won't have much impact on the kids themselves. Not so for rules imposing an age limit on the festivities. The Canadian Press reports that several U.S. cities have banned teenagers from trick-or-treating, rules that in some places date back at least as far as the '70s but in other spots have appeared more recently. Bellevue, Illinois, adopted its ordinance in 2008, the news agency informs us, after the mayor "heard from too many single mothers and senior citizens complaining they were frightened by 'six-foot-tall kids' showing up at their homes in search of candy."

The Bellevue law "also prohibits those over 12 years old from wearing masks in public any other day of the year." Because you can never be too careful.

Pretending it isn't Halloween. The under-twelves can still have their fun on Halloween night, but in many places they're no longer able to celebrate during the day. Schools across the country have refused to observe the holiday, while others have attempted to recast it as "Orange and Black Day," as "Fall-o-Ween," even as a "Literature Party." (Literature? A blogger at Unqualified Offerings explains: Most of the "costumes are based on characters in stories.")

Sometimes the schools are afraid of offending fundamentalists; sometimes they're afraid of offending Wiccans. And sometimes the change is just a sign that you're living in the age of No Child Left Behind. "To prepare even kindergarten-age children for a career of standardized testing, in-school parties of all kinds—along with naps, recess and field trips—are being cut back or phased out in many schools across the country," The Washington Post reported in 2004. And thus administrators are attempting "to abbreviate and homogenize classroom celebrations of Halloween, Christmas and Easter."

All these policies represent the heavily policed and professionalized side of our culture: the elements of American life where families are told to fear their neighbors, submit to surveillance, and trade in traditional pleasures for a homogenized facsimile of fun. The good news is that the fearmongers don't have a monopoly on the holiday, and that kids around the country can still enjoy the costumes, the candy, and the convivial custom of mumming around the block and begging for treats. "Despite our mounting fears and apoplectic media," Free-Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy recently wrote, Halloween "is still the day that many of us, of all ages, go outside. We knock on doors. We meet each other. And all that giving and taking and trick-or-treating is building the very thing that keeps us safe: community." It's not an x-ray machine at the courthouse that protects us, not an iPhone app for tracking sex offenders, not a state-issued pumpkin on a convict's door, not a super-sensitive schoolmarm who insists on calling the holiday the "Fall Festival." Just ordinary people who know their neighbors and want to share a night of fun.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).

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  1. When I was trick-or-treating “No Candy at this Residence” sign would be an invitation to a flaming paper bag filled with dog turds left on the doorstep.

    1. We’d usually stick with TP in the trees or eggs on whatever we could plaster them on. The whole picking up dogshit part of the flaming bag-o-poo trick was just a bit too gross.

      1. So you punished people for not giving you something you didn’t particularly deserve?

        1. Absolutely, and with gusto.

          1. And without remorse.

        2. Slut, do you even know what Halloween is?

          1. It’s trick first, unless they give you a treat as appeasement.

          2. I’m not being serious.

        3. Typical Democrats.

      2. Eggs in Freezing weather do a lot of damage to paint.

        1. Eggs rapidly fired, at speed, do a lot of damage to lousy crotchfruit. But NOOOOO, I’m the crazy one for defending my property.

  2. Reasonoids, what are some good songs for a Halloween playlist?

    1. “Werewolves of London.”

      1. “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” is scarier.

      1. Great list.

    2. How about Halloween by The Misfits.

    3. Rush’s “Witch Hunt.”

    4. “Dead Man’s Party” by Oingo Boingo is the tame choice. The better choice is “Profondo Rosso” from the Profondo Rosso soundtrack.

      1. If you’re going to do Boingo, go with “No One Lives Forever”. Still apropos, and not nearly as overplayed.

    5. Pretty much any Bauhaus song.

      “Candyman” by Siouxsie and the Banshees.

      The Cure’s “Lullaby”.

      1. If you don’t want to go full Bauhaus, try some solo Peter Murphy – for the subtly disturbing undertones.

    6. “Mad Monster Mansion” from Banjo Kazooie

      It’s what I blast in my front yard for the trick-or-treaters.

    7. White Zombie/Rob Zombie – just play everything they ever did straight through.

      1. ….with “House of 1000 Corpses” running in the background on the old televizzle.

    8. The “Theme From A Clockwork Orange.”

    9. Endura – The Left Hand of the Dead

      I plan on looping that track while handing out candy.

    10. Dead Kennedys “Holloween”

    11. Anything by Nile because I envision it as the music played at the gates of hell.

      1. I’ve always envisioned a muzak rendition of The Hussle as the soundtrack to hell.

    12. Any of Dr. John’s earliest work is sufficiently creepy and voodoo-esque.

    13. Damn, I’m old. The first thing I thought of is “Monster Mash” by Bobby Pickett and the Crypt Kickers. Or the theme from The Munsters. (And damn I loved that cool car.)

      1. The first thing I thought of was “For Gawd’s sake DON’T play Monster Mash.”

        MM was funny the first couple of times I heard it. The repetitions every f*****g Halloween since are nauseating.

      2. Nah, if you were old, you’d have thought of Flying Purple People Eater.

    14. Sandpaper Lullaby,
      Sweet Home (Under White Clouds),
      “Beast” (Seven Bastard Suck),
      (Abbagall/Brain Damage/No Birds to Fly)
      and Decline and Fall

      All by the Virgin Prunes. That’s my core list for this season.

  3. One of my earliest memories is of trick-or-treating as a three year-old. I threw up from eating one of those candy-corn pumpkins. This is back in the 60s, so I figure it was some hippie pushing acid on small children or something. ‘Cause that shit was going on ALL the time in the 1960s.

    1. I would totally take “hippie giving out treats laced with acid” over “old lady who thinks pennies still have value” any day.

      1. In the 1960s, a few pennies could buy you food for a week.

        1. Yes, but how much acid could they buy you?

          1. Well, of course, that was free. You could get a year’s supply each Halloween from the candy-corn shaped like pumpkins. Or so I suspect.

        2. God, you’re old. I can’t believe the government is stealing my money to give to you.

          1. Belief is the first step to embracing the suck.

          2. I fear that I’m more of a doler than a dolee.

        3. Or an onion for your belt.

        4. Or some fuel for your horseless carriage.

  4. I used to have a great time scaring the shit out of kids who came to my house on Halloween. But this year I have decided that I am sick of it. The kids are all assholes, parents are either assholes or overcautious pussies, and too many people wear costumes that have nothing to do with Halloween. This year I’m just going to get drunk and yell at people to stay off my lawn.

    1. And when the neighborhood award for scariest set up of the sub-division. Attention whore.

      1. did you mean “win”?

        I like the “please take one” basket, and if someone takes more, a ghoul pops out screaming “I SAID TAKE ONE AND ONLY ONE, I WILL EAT YOUR SOUL!”

        1. yeah, but I was trying not to encourage him. I prefer cynically grinding hopes and dreams into the muddy, fetid puddles that are the reality of our lives! /sarc – so far as you know.

    2. get the gimp

  5. Speaking of homogeny, I want to thank you fine folk o’ Reason for not using the asshole’s-apostrophe “Hallowe’en” in any of your holiday posts. Goddamn Danzig doesn’t even do that, yet suddenly the whole white side of the tubes has been sprayed a foot thick with it. Except this one part.

    You guys are OK, occasionally.

    Don’t do it.

    1. I like to call it All Hallow’s Eve.

      That includes an apostrophe, right?

      1. I like to call it Samhain, which gives me an excuse to listen to old records, set shit on fire, and get drunk.

        Which is what I do every weekend, but this weekend I have an excuse.

    2. Speaking of homogeny

      Gen Y’s orientation is none of my business. Also: Hallowe’en, Hallowe’en, Hallowe’en!

    3. What about “The ‘een” that’s what we call it.

      As in:

      “Are you getting dressed up for The ‘een?”

      1. Nobody is that big an asshole.

        1. I try.

      2. If I ever encountered anyone who actually said that out loud to me I would probably murder them. No jury in the world would convict me.

    4. We called it “the night the asshole at the quicky mart wouldn’t sell eggs to kids”. Great life lessons about procrastination and proper planning.

      1. Buy your eggs in July and store them in the sun until september then keeep behind the radiator.

  6. I, of course, oppose laws banning teenagers from trick-or-treating. But I do have to say it pisses me off when kids that are too old come knocking. My solution? I keep a bowl of good candy for the cute little kids, and a bowl of that shitty black and orange hard stuff that tastes like stale peanut butter.

    1. I always loved that stuff.

    2. a bowl of that shitty black and orange hard stuff that tastes like stale peanut butter

      LOL, I remember that shit. A fitting punishment!

    3. And people wonder why they end up with a flaming bag of dogshit on their porch, and TP fluttering from their trees.

  7. Hey Jesse, any chance the article title was a reference to George Romero?

    1. Romero, Donovan, Vanilla Fudge, take your pick…

  8. Halloween “is still the day that many of us, of all ages, go outside. We knock on doors. We meet each other. And all that giving and taking and trick-or-treating is building the very thing that keeps us safe: community.”

    Nothing scares the statists more than that.

    1. Amen to that. Hopefully the boomers haven’t totally screwed up Halloween forever for my kids & grandkids…

  9. What does the super-sensitive schoolmarm refer to Thanksgiving as? The other fall festival?

    Reminds me of a column I read decades ago sarcastically proposing replacement of Thanksgiving by Thunderherd Day, the kickoff to Thunderherd Month. I forgot the rest of the shtick.

    1. It’s called Harvest Festival.

      No kidding.

  10. This Halloween, does it conflict with the Harvest Festival celebrations the kids are now enjoying at school?

  11. If you’re a grown-up and have a cool computer and Steam, Halloween is a good time to play this game. Oh, and hand out candy cigarettes! 🙂

    1. Hallowe’en (just for cent) is never a good time to play old video games because all the new ones are coming out this time of year.

  12. More likely to drown in a bucket? So I guess there will be no bobbing for apples this year…

  13. The Bellevue law “also prohibits those over 12 years old from wearing masks in public any other day of the year.” Because you can never be too careful.

    We have a law like that in Virginia, and it was enacted for a good reason: to keep the Ku Klux Klan from going about and intimidating people. (The escape clause for 12-year-olds and younger was included so some asshole wouldn’t use the law as an excuse to to bust kids on Halloween.)

    1. Yes, because clearly what intimidates people about the Klan is the masks, not the lynchings, arson, and bombings.

    2. Up in the borderlands we have a good reason for it too: Can’t let the Myrddraal go skulking about town.

  14. This talk of Halloween and big government reminds of that old King Of The Hill episode where the character Dale The Conspiracy Theorist dressed up as a Washington lobbyist for Halloween. Quite funny.

  15. At least one sheriff’s department?in Washoe County, Nevada?offers its x-ray services not just to trick-or-treaters but to families “interested in getting their candy checked prior to handing it out.” To protect against…what? Tampering at the supermarket? Should we get the local health department involved in this too? How about the USDA?

    My first thought was that this was something like that time when someone ran with an Onion story as actual news, because, of course, Washoe County is where Reno is — where Reno 911! was set. I thought maybe someone took an episode of the show for truth. But no, it’s from this month, long after the series was (tragically) cancelled.

    1. OMG!!! They’re handing out IRRIDATED CANDY!!!

  16. Would “Flaming Bag of Dogshit” be a good name for a band?

    1. Only if it’s something like an Air Supply tribute band.

  17. The Nanny State is ending up as the Sterile State.

  18. As for halloween celebrations in the schools, I’m glad they are getting rid of those.

    They never had them in mine, and besides, anything official sanctions by the school administrators is automatically less fun.

  19. Down here in Tucson we have ‘Day of the Dead’, which has almost replaced halloween for some hipsters.

    Day of the dead is explicitly victorian-skeleton oriented, involves the colors of red, black, and white (instead of orange and black), and the preferred icon is a shamanic skull staff, preferably with some dangly shaking bones. Also you are required to paint your face to look like a skeleton.

    Anyone passing through the South west during early november should definitely check out the All Souls Procession. Our local parallel to Carnival or Mardi Gras.

  20. Lemmee see now. You make a threat and someone rewards you.

    Rewards you with something that is actually harmful to your health.

    This is how Jessee Jackson got his start wasn’t it???

  21. Don’t forget putting up a noose as a decoration can get you charged with a hate crime in some localities.

  22. If you’re into Halloween and you’re older than 10, you need to re-think how your life has unfolded.

    1. Killjoy.

    2. Why is it the people most likely to tell you to rethink your life also seem to need the most professional help?

  23. The closest anyone has found is a crime in 1974 when a boy’s Pixy Stix was doused with cyanide. But the culprit turned out to be his own dad.

    Yeah, but no one knew it was his dad at the time, and it wasn’t just his own kid either. I remember that incident, but not all that well anymore, since it happened so long ago. It was in my hometown – or one of its bedroom communities; I was in my early twenties at the time. I would have to trace the beginning of the trick-or-treat scares back to that one crime, I think. Sure, kids had been given “tricks” instead of treats long before then, probably by other kids – but no one had heard of anyone trying to poison or murder anyone. If I recall, it wasn’t many years after that someone out on the west coast laced Tylenol or something with cyanide and put it back on the store shelf and killed random strangers. Now everything you buy is fixed so you can’t open it short of using dynamite or something. World keeps getting crazier and crazier and people more and more evil – or maybe I just hear about more of it now.

    1. I would have to trace the beginning of the trick-or-treat scares back to that one crime

      No, the poison-treat scares go back earlier than that — there were rumors of LSD-laced candy in the ’60s, for example. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the scares intensified after the Pixy Stix killing. I know from my own childhood that they were amped up after the Tylenol murders eight years later. Those took place about a month before Halloween, and one anxiety flowed naturally into the other.

  24. We’re giving out shit samidges with icing on top, calling ’em Obamacare doughnuts.

  25. Dude, I live in Reno, the county seat for Washoe County, Nevada. Yeah, pretty pathetic. With the layoffs they’ve dealt with the past couple of years and the massive budget cuts, the social planner or fundamentalist nut that pushed this through is embarrassing all of us here.

    Thought us Nevadans were the avant garde of libertarianism.

  26. Weird how no one said anything about the fact that trick-or-treating is restricted to 2-3 hours. That’s the one that always gets me.

    We don’t restrict visiting on Christmas to a few hours, and church on Easter isn’t only allowed between nine and eleven. But Halloween gets gutted and no one seems to notice anymore.

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