Ghosts bad and good Essay: Halloween has passed from pagans to children to adults, and in and out of favor.


Halloween is the eve of the ancient Celtic festival Samhain, and the time when the Mexican people welcome the dead into their homes or visit cemeteries for jolly fiestas. In the United States, it is the only day on our calendar with reference to the supernatural not condoned by our established religions.

For some reason some people don't like it.

Halloween emerged as a pagan holiday in the forests of northern Europe, like Christmas. But unlike Christmas, it has never been convincingly sanctified. It still evokes images of demons and ghosts, rather than of saints and the holy Christian dead.

But Halloween has changed much in recent years. Once a folk holiday animated by the purposeful manufacture of ersatz fear, it has been subverted by the real thing. Where imaginary ghosts and witches once roamed, actual muggers skulk and pedophiles prowl.

Many older people can remember when, as children, they ran unsupervised through the streets on Halloween night flushed and happy, out to satisfy what G.K. Chesterton called "the healthy lust for darkness and terror " Mischief was to be expected. After all, the devil was at our elbow.

To a child back then, to be unwatched and at large in the night, secure in the anonymity of mask and costume, offered a buoyant pleasure. Like a pickup game of baseball on a vacant lot, it was something created by children for themselves, always the seed of a more durable memory than anything ever planted by Little League, which bright children know is only parental control one step removed.

These days, many people are apprehensive when they contemplate the streets on All Hallows' Eve. On any night, actually. They are convinced life is more chancy now just about everywhere, and maybe it is. If you believe there are more people around these days with evil intentions, then Halloween night must be seen as a time when the streets are full of potential victims.

Some banned it

What to do? Guard your child; supervise all trick-or-treating? Discourage or ban it entirely, as several towns in Carroll County have done? Manchester, Taneytown and New Windsor are far removed from the aberrational violence that so frightens city people, but they haven't had trick-or-treating up there for years.

Originally, most objections to the old practice came from the elderly who didn't like answering the door bell time after time through the night. Then there was the fear of vandalism.

Rebecca Harman, a town councilwoman in New Windsor, says that before trick or treating was banned seven years ago, it had turned into a form of harassment of the elderly. "People came in from out of town in vans and even trucks. They swarmed over the town. They were all ages, not just little children. They were harassing people and when they didn't get a treat, they did some mean things."

In Carroll County in general, the celebration of Halloween has virtually disappeared within the schools.

The same is true in other parts of the country, from Illinois, to Iowa to California. Many people object to the holiday's non-Christian dimension -- which is to say its essence. Its allusion to the occult frightens them.

Fear is a leitmotif of modern life. Fear was always an element of Halloween. But it was the thrilling, pleasurable terror of the unknown. Today people know quite well what they are afraid of: the malevolent stranger, the child suddenly not there, the disturbed soul sliding razor shards and needles into apples and candy.

To neutralize this latter threat, many hospitals around the country will willingly X-ray any kid's Halloween haul. Union Memorial Hospital has been doing it in Baltimore for almost a decade. But, according to Margaret Jones of the radiology department, they've never found a sabotaged treat.


Much has been done to transform Halloween into something other than what it really is, an invention of custom and culture, a prehistoric new year's celebration suffused with magical belief. In the process it has been sanitized, de-ritualized, sentimentalized, over-organized by PTAs, exploited by Hollywood, anathematized by fundamentalist Christians, and even politically corrected.

The Iowa City School District last year condemned costumes of Gypsies, Indians, hobos and devils as insensitive, likely to give offense to Gypsies, Indians and hobos, maybe even to devils.

Halloween has been vitiated by an excess of good intentions. The principal of Phelps Luck Elementary School in Howard County advised all parents last month that costumes for Halloween should be restricted to those representing characters in story books. Wrote the principal: "Costumes that depict a violent or morbid character are prohibited from being worn at Phelps Luck."

No mirthful morbidity? No dancing skeletons? Dogs can have their day, but not the dead?

Halloween isn't really for children anymore, anyway. It's been hijacked by adults, especially young adults, who have entered the game of dress-up and masquerade in great number. Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia are venues for lusty Halloween celebrations and marathon pub crawls, usually in the entertainment district of each city, such as South Street in Philadelphia, Georgetown in Washington and Fells Point here.

Fells Point has been the scene of intense weekend partying for a long time. A lot of young people from the suburbs come down. To Brian Baker, a bartender at the Admiral's Cup, "It's just a lot of fun."

But Nick Filipidis, owner of Jimmy's Restaurant and Carryout at Broadway and Shakespeare streets, thinks differently:

"It's not a fun time anymore. It's gotten out of hand. Back in the '70s, we used to sit outside and not bother anybody. Now they come down here and want to break houses and cars. I'm surprised nobody's been shot."

"Halloween," he added, "has become a typical Saturday night with costumes."

The 20-something

Why this sudden re-embrace of a holiday most people used to leave behind after puberty? Maybe it's because today's 20-somethings grew up with Freddy Krueger movies and all the other grotesqueries of the Hollywood horror mills of the past decade or so, and haven't been able to outgrow it all.

Linda Fewell reports a surprising national preoccupation with Halloween among adults. She's a spokeswoman for the Hallmark card company, which keeps track of such things. She's full of factoids.

"One in three adults wore Halloween costumes in 1990," she says. "About 65 percent of Americans are expected to decorate their homes this year," she adds. "About 23 percent will decorate their offices."

What this suggests is that at some time in the recent past, adults stole Halloween away from their children and in the process transformed it into a more extravagant festivity and made it their own. Today it is the third most popular adult party occasion in the country, behind New Year's Eve and Super Bowl Sunday.

Ms. Fewell, however, says she detects a turn back in the other direction. She referred to a poll in which 70 percent of those asked said they wanted to see children more involved in Halloween festivities.

It is a trend also noticed by Angela Oriente of the A & M Costume Gallery on Belair Road, whose rentals to adults have increased 10 to 15 percent over the past 10 years.

"Many people are having parties at home because it's too dangerous to let the kids out," she says. "They are having adult parties which include the children."

How generous. Once again the Grinch has a change of heart.

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