Halloween in America – Trick or Treating

Last week we learned that modern American Halloween comes from the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain. Many of our traditions have evolved from that holiday – especially expressions of harvest bounty (carving pumpkins, straw mazes, popcorn) and the themes of death, ghosts, goblins, and witches. Obviously ancient Celts didn’t go door to door for fun-size Snickers, so how did Trick or Treating get started?

Halloween became popular in the US when almost a million Irish people migrated here during the Great Famine. The Irish brought the Catholic tradition of “souling,” or going door to door to beg for the souls of the departed on All Hallow’s Eve. Time reports that “Although the Catholic Irish faced widespread prejudice from nativist forces in their new homeland, the celebration, having been stripped of its Catholic underpinning, quickly proved to be popular.” The flip side of this, though, is that the fun costumes and begging turned into parties that got rowdy and belligerent. Halloween became about mischief that involved ”vandalism, physical assaults, and sporadic acts of violence.” So American!

The response was pretty American, too – WE BOUGHT THEM OFF. Neighbors began to bribe kids to not fuck with their property, and then local authorities joined in – setting up parades, parties, and eventually friendly local Trick or Treating to give kids an outlet and make the holiday safer and more palatable.Municipal trick or treating didn’t stop kids from being dicks at Halloween, however. The mischief and mayhem are baked in – and I have the childhood scars to prove it. 

Back in the dark ages of the early 1980’s, my sister and I got punked HARD while we were out trick-or-treating. We were living in a pretty fancy suburb of Chicago (that lasted, like, two years and I have the off-brand Cabbage Patch Doll to prove that we never really belonged there, ok?). We were maybe 6 and 8? We were alone, because back in the Stone Age the only thing you needed adult supervision for was donating an organ or joining the army. It was already dark outside, and the street was quiet, and A PERSON DRESSED UP AS THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON jumped out at us from behind a bush. We screamed and booked it the fuck out of there.  

Meg dropped her bag of candy in the process, and THEN WE HAD TO GO BACK AND GET IT which was so, so much worse. But the bag was more than halfway full and you can’t just let candy like that go – it was a full hoard!  In my memory we screamed and peed our pants the whole way, in Meg’s memory the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON stole her candy. In my father’s memory, this never happened because he always took us out for trick or treating (Lol, sure Jan). I imagine the CREATURE to be like 10 feet tall and dripping blood and seaweed and carrying, IDK, a machete. In reality he was probably about 12 and had parents that weren’t paying real close attention (or were – this was the 80s). The story has a happy ending because WE GOT THE CANDY BACK. 

Urban Legends

The mischief and mayhem of Halloween lend themselves to truly fantastical story-telling this time of year. The roots of the holiday invoke some scary and profane stuff, and you can really see those themes come alive in urban legends. Scholar Jack Santino writes that Halloween is a time to face death personally, but “also the time for people to work through group fears – not just death and ghosts, but urban legends and fears of murder, crime, and depravity.” Which is why  Halloween is an absolutely spectacular time for urban legends. I had to do some SERIOUS mental editing to keep this post to under a hundred pages, because frankly there’s a story for everything. Don’t worry, I included a link to the whole Snopes Halloween page so you can go down the rathole yourselves. 

Candy Tampering

The most famous Halloween urban legend, without a doubt, involves people poisoning candy or stuffing it with needles and razor blades. How many of your parents went through their bags at the end of the night, checking for wrappers that looks damaged or tampered with? PBS’ Origin of Everything has an excellent and very entertaining short about this which you should definitely watch, but it boils down to it has happened, but not the way you think. 

Like most urban legends, the truth is way more interesting and fucked up than fiction. There are a couple of real incidences that may have contributed to the urban legend.  In the 1960’s, a woman handed out INSECT TRAPS, BRILLO PADS, AND DOG TREATS to kids and was then put in a mental institution, and that is the only funny story in this canon of horribles. Because obviously no kids ATE A BRILLO PAD. In 1970, however, a child died of a heroin overdose and his parents blamed poisoned candy – but actually, he got into his uncle’s stash of pills. Ugh. 

A photo of assorted halloween candy

Photo by Carl Raw on Unsplash

The worst story of them all also happened in 1970, when Ronald Clark O’Bryan put cyanide into Pixie Stix and gave them to his kids and three others. His eight year old son, Timothy, ate the candy and died. Miraculously, none of the other children touched it. Ronald murdered his son for his life insurance policy, and he passed the candy out to other kids to make it look random. UGHHHH. Snopes thinks that O’Bryan and the Totson family capitalized on the urban legends to cover up their own involvement, but I think this is kind of a chicken-egg situation. These deaths MUST have made the legend take deeper hold. I know it was going strong in the eighties when I was inspecting my candy. Ronald Clark O’Bryan was sentenced to death and executed, so there’s one more grisly element to this story.

Drugs Disguised as Candy

OK, my absolute favorite Halloween urban legend is that people are HANDING OUT DRUGS TO TRICK OR TREATERS. Because everyone you know who uses recreational drugs is just dying to pass off their hard earned good time to random children, right? Drugs are free! Everyone knows that. This story is great because it gives us a chance to sneer at the squares and it’s patently untrue, so no one got hurt in the making of this urban legend. 

No doubt you have seen this floating around on Facebook, probably shared by a boomer in your timeline who just WANTS EVERYONE TO BE SAFE AND HAVE A GOOD TIME, OK? This is actually an old story, with roots going back to 1970’s era warnings about blotter paper acid. The stories change as different drugs come into vogue – warning about everything from Ecstasy (or whatever you kids call it now) to THC. Even worse, police departments who really should know better but have bought their own bullshit about the War on Drugs share this crap

Needless to say, there’s nothing to support this urban legend except the tired old Just Say No, Drugs are Baaaad mmmkay Reagan-era rhetoric that won’t die down. I can’t wait for this to morph into some type of fentanyl-dust story and catch up with the times. And in case it’s not clear, I have some feelings about drug prohibition and the mass incarceration fueled by the drug war. They’re held over from a prior life in criminal justice reform, and now we can get back to the fun stuff I PROMISE. 

Photo of a black cat

Black Cat Sacrifices

KEEP UR CATS INSIDE ON HALLOWEEN! They’ll be sacrificed by SATANISTS! We’ve all heard this one, right? It usually includes the detail that shelters won’t adopt black cats out in the month of October because of all those devil worshippers looking to snap one up for a ritual. Black cats are commonly associated with witches, a belief that seems to have its roots in stories about witches’ familiars, or animals that did their bidding. And black, well – just ask the Goths about that. IT’S THE DEVIL’S COLOR. 

This story definitely isn’t true in the sense that there’s no widespread cult activity of cat sacrifice on Halloween. Individual animals are harmed all of the time by shitty people, but these stories don’t add up to a conspiracy. It doesn’t help that animal shelters once promoted this urban legend, either. Even now, with shelters actively debunking this legend in their communications, they are flooded with calls from concerned citizens every year. They have it hard enough getting black cats adopted because people associate them with bad luck. 

Vice News ties this story right up to where I expected it to go – the Satanic Panic. Don’t worry – we’ll cover that one soon enough. 

Happy Halloween, friends! Stay safe! Don’t do drugs! Be nice to cats!