Monday, October 1, 2007

Sidewalk Auguries & the Commodification of Halloween

Since the dawn of human existence we and our antecedents have looked to certain events as omens, divinations, and signs from god. These potential predictors of future events have been evinced in the form of everything from natural phenomena like eclipses and animal sightings, to a turn of tarot cards or a roll of the dice. Today I think I experienced my own augury of the future. As I stepped off the bus at Astor Place to catch the uptown subway I was greeted by a large puddle of Halloween-orange vomit. Surely that is an unwelcome sign that the day is not going to go well, an omen for rough sailing ahead. And sure enough it started off badly and hasn't improved. Let's hope the day brightens.

Speaking of Halloween, does anyone else out there think that retailers and advertisers have gone way overboard in the marketing of Halloween? I remember as a child how Halloween was a pretty low-key holiday. With no days off for school and only "It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown" for kids' TV specials, Halloween seemed like the step-child of the bigger holidays, like a warm-up for Thanksgiving and Christmas, or a teaser for the mayhem of December 25th and Hanukkah. A few weeks before October 31st the candy displays would hit the Woolworth's, Grant's and Rose's (retail mainstays in the age before Wal-Mart and Target) and those crappy costumes with the plastic masks would find their way to the shelves. We would agonize over the "what are you gonna be" question and usually at the last minute we'd buy something from the store - a Frankenstein, Dracula, Casper the Friendly Ghost - or my mom would help us slap together something easy: hobos and football players were perennial favorites in our house. Jack-o-lanterns might appear a week or two before the revelry of trick-or-treating, but lawn decorations were simply non-existent. Occasionally there would be a community Halloween party and in elementary school we'd have a little party in our classroom. The night would arrive and we'd spend several joyous hours marching from house to house in my little subdivision of about 100 homes, and we'd fill our bags with the typical assortment of candy. (In that sense, the holiday has changed little. My kids pretty much get the same kinds of candy I received. And my wife and I always scrounge their bags for our old favorites - Three Musketeers, Nestles Crunch, and Butterfingers!) We didn't really worry about our personal safety or the safety of the candy. It really was a very innocent affair. Even when we were older and had stopped dressing up and trick-or-treating, we didn't engage in some of the nastier rituals associated with Halloween revelry. In such a small community, egging someone's house or toilet-papering their trees would have been foolhardy and the scoundrels pretty quickly rounded up. Our biggest concern always seemed to be the weather. In southeastern Virginia, October 31st could bring either frigid temperatures - necessitating an extra layer of clothes underneath those flimsy costumes - or balmy "Indian Summer" weather with 70 degree temps at trick-or-treat time. Cooler was definitely better, particularly from a psychological standpoint. I always associated the holiday with cool weather and the rustle of dried leaves underfoot as we clomped from door to door. Breaking a sweat in a Frankenstein mask was a long way from fun.

Today the holiday seems so much more complicated. I'm still amazed, for example, when I see the amount of decorations so many people place in their yards: inflatable monsters, elaborate haunted house displays, strings of plastic jack-o-lantern lights hung from trees and porches, and even orange Christmas-like strings of mini-lights. Indeed, Halloween - at least in suburbia - seems to rival Christmas for the sheer volume of stuff with which people adorn their homes. When did this happen? I'm guessing this is another product of the Wal-Martification of America. Cheap, plastic, and "made in China" are temptations simply too powerful to avoid on October 31st. The sheer commodification of the holiday is made all the more worse by the fact that the candy and decorations - even here in the City - start appearing in store as early as August and the beginning of September. (This marketing pattern is no surprise, of course. Christmas decorations will hit the stores on November 1st - if not sooner - and Valentine's candy and cards will appear on shelves by December 26th.)

Equally puzzling is the appeal of so-called elaborate "haunted houses," including some that employ Hollywood-style special effects to scare patrons. I remember "haunted houses" as a kid, but they were always amateurish affairs that were primarily fundraisers for various community groups like the volunteer rescue squad or fire department. Particularly troubling are the insidious "hell houses" run by fundamentalist Christian groups. These concoctions expose kids to the supposed "torments of hell" for those who sin, drink alcohol, engage in premarital sex, seek abortions, or engage in homosexual behavior. In the end, they're merely more tangible expressions of the hate-mongering these groups soft-peddle from the pulpit during the other eleven months of the year. Of course, these are the same people who refuse to let their kids read Harry Potter books or take part in the innocent play of Halloween because they associate these symbols with evil and Satanic worship. I'm still shaking my head over these examples of religious extremism.

Luckily, Halloween in the city is still fairly low-key. Some apartment buildings have trick-or-treating for the kids, with sign-up sheets posted to let everyone know who's taking part. In my neighborhood, West Village businesses along Hudson Street have trick-or-treating on the Saturday or Sunday afternoon closest to Halloween, usually in conjunction with a Halloween party held at the Bleecker Playground the same day. The kids march up and down Hudson Street and most businesses hand out candy to the costumed kids. It's fun, safe, and people in the neighborhood have a good time. Our kids' school will also have a "Monster Mash" Halloween party on the Saturday before Halloween as a big fundraiser for PTA programs.

I do know a few families who take their kids out to suburbia to trick-or-treat with friends so they can experience the more "traditional" door-to-door Halloween ritual, as if they're missing something in the City. Is this holiday really so important that kids need to take part in what some consider a "typical" ritualized experience, as if they're passing on some significant piece of cultural baggage without which their kids would be incomplete? And it's not like the Great Pumpkin is going to fly in and reward kids with toys and presents like poor Linus perennially hopes in the the Peanuts holiday special. It should just be fun, without ideological or philosophical strings attached. I remember no angst-ridden discussion by my fairly conservative parents about the pros and cons of dressing up as monsters or wizards for Halloween. In that sense, one can excuse the garish lawn displays. They're still tacky, but in the name of pure fun, a little tackiness is excusable.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

You pretty much covered everything I wanted to say here. Our street is decorated almost as elaborately as it is for Christmas. I think maybe society is hungry for things to celebrate and spend money on.
Can you believe that Lowes (Home Stores) here has their artificial Christmas trees up and lit??? I was there yesterday and thought I was seeing things.
One thing I just remembered about Halloween when I was a kid that's different now- We had trick-or-treating for the entire week of Halloween, which was pretty cool. It afforded the opportunity to dress up differently and "fool" the neighbors into giving more candy. It was cool back then because everyone knew everyone else in the neighborhood and actually tried to guess who was behind a mask. These days the whole experience seems to amount to people answering their doors and throwing candy in the bags.
If any holiday can get away with being tacky, I'm glad it's Halloween. ;-)