One of my favorite adult memories of Halloween was from a time I was living in Colonial Place in Norfolk. The whole neighborhood got into the spirit of the holiday with decorations, haunted yards, adults dressed up in costumes ready to give candy to the trick or treaters. On Halloween, the whole neighborhood looked like a place out of a spooky movie. I lived in a house with some artistic folks. The landlady even made an authentic looking werewolf costume out of paper mache and fur. She was already a tall, lanky woman, but she made herself even taller with wooden blocks on her shoes. On Halloween night, unsuspecting tweens and young teens would round the corner onto our porch only to be confronted with a realistic looking seven foot tall werewolf standing over the bowl of candy. Many would run away screaming and then their parents would reassure them, come up onto the porch, spy the werewolf, and run away screaming themselves. My landlady believed that the children should “earn” their treat. She also didn’t give candy to those children who didn’t wear an actual costume.
I’ve told this story time and time again over the years, most folks sharing in the fun that the parents were scared too. Last week I told the story to a co-worker and she suggested that this was terrible. The children were probably traumatized.
As I handed out candy to trick or treaters last night, I reflected on this. I’m no longer in a neighborhood that gets so much into Halloween, but my next door neighbors did and I watched as they handed out candy while in costume in their front yard. I watched as the reluctant kids backed away in droves from the woman in the pumpkin mask handing out candy. I watched as some “earned” their candy by confronting their fears, while others avoided the house and their promised treats because their fear got the better of them. I watched as parents encouraged their children to face their fears, and then I realized… this has all the hallmarks of a rite of passage.
The whole scene reminded me of historical rites of passage and coming of age rites where the adults in a community or village conspire to help the youth gain confidence and independence by confronting their fears and proving they are ready to ascend to the next age grouping. This can be done by sending the youth out into the woods to survive and to hunt on their own, by sending them out for a vision quest, through enacting a mythic ritual, or even by forcing them to face a monster or a wild beast (usually an adult in a mask).
Trick or treat has a number of elements associated with rites of passage and the hero’s journey. There’s a call to adventure – the chance to dress up, roam the streets, and get candy. There are gifts given to the child to help them on their quest – a costume so they can blend in, a bag to hold their bounty, maybe a flashlight or glow stick to light their way. The child meets the guardian at the threshold – the mundane or masked adult handing out candy at the door, porch, or property boundary. If the adult is masked, the children have to face their fear if they want receive their boon. The adventure takes place at a liminal time – dusk on All Hallow’s Eve. The children’s parents act as guides encouraging them that there’s nothing to be afraid of – only a person in a mask. Sometimes the person will take off the mask to show them there’s really nothing to fear. After trick or treat is over, the children bring their bounty back to their homes. Their parents and siblings often share in their prize.
The next year the ritual begins anew. The child is a little older and has more experience than they did the year before. As they grow older, they may start to taunt the masked guardians. “You’re just wearing a mask.” They still may be reluctant to get too close. The years go by and they master their fears (or they become dominated by them). At some point they’re too old for trick or treat, so they start going to Halloween parties at school or hosted by friends. This is another chance to prove their independence, though someone’s parents are probably close by. For good or ill, some start using Halloween as an opportunity to pull pranks, while others go to haunted houses, watch scary movies, and so on. These are yet more opportunities to assert their independence and to face their fears.
Eventually the children, tweens, and teens grow up. They may enact this ritual yet again with their own kids. They may act as parental guides or threshold guardians bearing candy. Or they might fall into the category of those who have become cynical and chose not to celebrate Halloween. Even adults have to face their fears on this day — their fear of the worst in humanity. They know that it’s only other humans under the masks, but that’s not necessarily reassuring. What else might the mask hide – serial killers, rapists, sex offenders, folks who might poison or put razor blades in the candy, human traffickers, body part snatchers, and all our other unconscious fears brought to life? Most folks are normal, everyday people under the masks, but it only takes one or a few bad apples to spoil the celebration. Adults too have to decide whether to face their fears or to be owned and dominated by their worst nightmares.
With all rites of passage there’s always the opportunity to grow by facing fear and asserting confidence and independence, but there’s also always the risk of trauma. Not everyone can face their fears, and those who don’t pass their test often become traumatized by the test and owned by their fears. Trick or treat can be an adventure or a trauma. It all depends on how you approach it and whether or not you let your fears haunt you.