Halloween's Social Contract - Live Like a Mensch
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Live Like a Mensch

Halloween's Social Contract


At the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy, I must say that Halloween has changed since I was a kid.

Every year for the past four or five, I have seen teenagers trick-or-treating sans costumes. On one memorable Halloween, an adult woman who was dressed in street clothes came knocking at my door. (When she saw my disbelieving look, she told me that she had been wearing Halloween makeup, but that it had irritated her face so she washed it off. IF that had been true--which I seriously doubted since there was no trace of makeup on her face--then the end of the makeup should have been the end of the festivities, even if it were acceptable for an adult to go trick-or-treating without a child along).

I frankly do not understand this phenomenon.

First of all, a bag of assorted candy costs anywhere between $7 and $12 depending on where you buy it. Each of the young people (and one adult) I have seen trick-or-treating on Halloween should certainly be able to scrape together that kind of money in order to get their candy fix. Heck, if they wait until today, November 1, to do their Halloween candy shopping, they should be able to buy a great deal more candy for a lot less money. And they'd only miss out on a single night of candy gorging.

Secondly, I anticipate that the teens (and one adult) who engage in costume-less trick-or-treating might tell me that it's more fun to go door-to-door than to buy candy for themselves. That would be a valid point if I were complaining about costumed 17-year-olds. But these kids are just showing up in whatever they wore that day.

The fun of Halloween is not really about the ability to solicit free candy from neighbors you otherwise never exchange two words with. It's about the cute/funny/scary/clever costumes and seeing the neighborhood full of children having fun and enjoying an opportunity to meet the neighbors you otherwise never exchange two words with. Subtract the costumes, and the whole endeavor becomes a candy stickup. After all, there's a reason why you can't do this every day of the year. The neighbors giving out the candy deserve the fun of seeing your costumes, too.

Last night, as a neighbor and I walked our kids from door-to-door, I was disheartened to see how many porch lights were off--the universal sign of "No Trick-or-Treaters." Perhaps I misremember, but it seemed like there were next to no houses that didn't participate in Halloween when I was growing up. I can only remember one or two non-participating homes in my childhood neighborhood--homes where the owners were ill or housebound in a way that made welcoming trick-or-treaters nearly impossible. But our neighborhood last night was full of homes without porch lights, and as I passed two different sets of uncostumed teen trick-or-treaters, I wondered if there was any kind of correlation between the two.

Halloween, when you think too hard about it, is one of the most bizarre traditions in our culture. (I imagine this was why LO last year was so thrilled to get two suckers at the first house we stopped by that he was perfectly happy to then go home. Because why on earth would it be okay to suddenly don a costume and hit up all the neighbors for candy by threatening them with a trick should said candy not be forthcoming?)

The reason why this tradition of trick-or-treating works is because we all agree to it. We have a social contract--kids get to dress up as heroes and monsters, and in exchange, we're willing to give them treats when they knock on our doors. The uncostumed kids--who, it could be argued, are too old to trick-or-treat regardless--are breaking that social contract. That just helps show how weird our tradition is, and makes it eminently reasonable for people to opt out.

As someone who loves Halloween, that makes me sad. I want LO and BB to have the same kind of lovely memories of costumes, candy, exploration, neighbors, and delicious scares that I do.

A breakdown in Halloween's social contract might jeopardize that.



devbd said:

Like this blog.

November 2, 2013 1:45 PM

livingcheapinpa said:

I agree.  When I was 12 years old my parents said it was my last year for trick-or-treating.  It was like that for all 3 of us kids (we are all now in our 40s).  I wonder if the teenagers and lazy adults are trying to intimidate (for lack of a better word) people for candy--we won't egg your house or car if you give us candy.  So lazy.  I loved to see the little ones so excited and happy.  My new neighborhood has no lights on for Halloween and I'm glad I don't have to see teens/adults abusing the evening, but I do miss the wee ones!

November 4, 2013 1:48 PM

haverwench said:

My rule is this: Anyone who shows up in costume can get candy, and I won't demand that they show proof of being 13 or younger. Anyone who shows up without a costume is going to get asked, "What are you?" If they can come up with a convincing answer (such as "I'm a psychopath; we look just like everyone else"), then that's worth a piece of candy. Otherwise, no dice.

And when I say candy, by the way, I mean candy, not these supposedly healthier treats that some folks are now trying to get us all to hand out instead. I mean, come on, this holiday is supposed to be about breaking all the rules: going out late, pretending to be someone you're not, demanding treats from your neighbors. If you can't have sugar on Halloween, when the heck can you have it? It's only once a year, for crying out loud; do they really think this is what's responsible for childhood obesity?

November 6, 2013 1:35 PM

frugal_fun said:

I agree on the no need for an arbitrary age cut off for trick or treating *if* there's a costume. Our 13 year old went this year as Dr. Who.

We lucked out in our neighborhood - the adults get into costume and all the teenagers put some work into theirs. We had kind of a neat Halloween this year.

November 6, 2013 8:52 PM

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