Halloween: A Communal Catharsis

Yesterday my neighbor, a nice single man with a large plate collection, put a jack-o-lantern in our hallway. "I've decided to celebrate Halloween this year," he said.

"Me too," I said. "We are going to dress our up daughter like the moon and stars. Do many kids come around here trick-or-treating?"

He looked at me strangely. Of course not, he said. We are on the third floor of a rather uninviting apartment building. None of our windows even face the street. People don't go trick-or-treating around here, he told me. "Most people just go to parties."

I felt as if I was back in sixth grade when I still wanted to have all-girl sleepovers and play charades and everyone else wanted to play two-minutes-in-the-closet. When did something as magical, mysterious, and wonderful as Halloween become about going to a party? Partying and trick-or-treating both involve getting dressed up and following specific rules of social behavior, but the similarities end there. Trick-or-treating is about resourceful costuming, community, the good kind of being scared, neighborliness, silliness, the unexpected warmth of strangers, and finally getting to peek into the house of that strange old lady on the corner. Parties are often about looking good and making small talk. If people go in costume, it's usually an excuse to wear something revealing, not something deliberately gruesome or transforming.

Maybe I sound curmudgeonly, but I don't want anyone to take away my second favorite holiday. It was bad enough during the whole razors-in-the-apples scare when we had to forego homemade cookies, bags of popcorn, and anything that wasn't in its original wrapper. Bad enough that we had to go out earlier and earlier in the evening, to the point that people were walking around as witches and vampires in the bright afternoon sun. Bad enough that people started buying their costumes at Kmart, based on television shows you had to have cable to watch. Bad enough that people started trick-or-treating at stores instead of houses because there was better loot. But this -- to get rid of trick-or-treating all together, to replace it with a decorous one-block parade for the younger set and a little wine and crackers for adults -- this has gone too far.

I think it is fair to say that a traditional Halloween symbolizes all that used to fun about this country before consumerism became our one and only god and every stranger became a potential terrorist.

There is no other American holiday like Halloween, no other day so deliberately celebrated not just with friends but also with neighbors and strangers. There is no other American holiday where creativity is more valued than piety. What other American tradition encourages us to make things that could be easier bought, to give for free what is normally sold, to speak to those we usually ignore. When else are we encouraged to trust the night, the streets, and each other?

And what better way for people to make fun of their fears? Kids get a chance to dress up as the nightmares that otherwise have them sneaking into their parents' beds. And adults can tackle their own nightmares by dressing as, say, our esteemed governor-elect here in California or the terrifying world leader of their choice.

As a general population still scarred by the September 11 attacks, wary of the unending Iraq war, and unsure whether or not to trust our own government, we need a communal catharsis. Halloween offers us therapy, community and free chocolate. We would be fools not to take it.

Rachel Neumann is Rights & Liberties editor of AlterNet. She lives in Oakland, and April Fool's Day is her favorite holiday.


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