I should like to preempt this space to promote a pet project.
As everyone knows, I'm the last soul to balk at anything that advances the gory, the ghastly, the ghoulish or the gruesome. Whenever called on to endow a new horror magazine or endorse a hideous new product, I've virtually bled myself white with generosity. As high as my fortunes have risen, I've never hesitated to offer a word or two of encouragement to some humble hatchet murderer or stomp killer along the way.
This being the case, it will come as a surprise to my disciples to learn that I favor the abolition of Halloween. But surprise or not, I have powerful lobbies in key places urging that it be stricken from the calendar and another occasion substituted. For no right-thinking adult can help but agree that it has become a crashing bore. Only Father's Day surpasses it for sheer tedium and hypocrisy.
Although Halloween's origins are obscured in the murk of prehistory, it is generally agreed that it has its roots in Roman and Druid harvest festivals. The reaping of summer's bounty signaled the onset of winter, which, as anyone with a poetic turn of mind can tell you, is another way of saying the death of nature.
The Forces of Darkness thus got the upper hand officially on Halloween and celebrated their triumph by running amuck over the countryside. Gremlins and goblins, kites and harpies, witches and poltergeists, warlocks, hammerlocks and bellylocks spread terror and dismay among the bumpkins, which were known among the Romans as rumpkins and among the Druids as drumpkins. These high-jinks picked up virulence around Saturnalia time, continued through the Ides of March, and didn't abate until the official days of the rebirth of nature—Mother's Day. Then the evil spirits went underground and thought up new bits for next autumn.
These frightful goings-on were somewhat modified in the sixth century, when Bombazine the Serene, a Druid patriarch, set up Thanksgiving Day as a buffer. He shrewdly saw that this holiday would break the momentum of winter-long festivities, so that only a few hardy devils would survive to make the New Year's Eve scene. Walpurgisnacht is also in this, but I can't stop to explain how.
The custom of playing pranks on Halloween arose when humans, jealous (as usual) of the powers possessed by supernatural elements, longed to wreak the same kind of havoc on person and property. This envy, coupled with the energy liberated by the end of harvest and lubricated by the wines and grain liquors abundant in that season, inspired the rural populace to make a great variety of mischief. Foremost of this was what we now know as "Trick or Treat."
The word "Trick" has its root in the Greek trichinos, "of hair" and 'Treat" is based on the Latin tractare, "to handle." It is clear, then, that the custom goes back to the time when celebrants would call on homes and yell, "Hair or Handle!" at the occupants. It doesn't make much sense to us, but then little about those days does.
Well, things went along pretty much in this vein for a thousand years or so, with only the Crusades and the Sino-Japanese War intervening. These halcyon days were to come to an abrupt end, however, with the advent of the United States. At that point the worst in human nature, which had thankfully prevailed for almost all of recorded history, ran smack dab into conditions totally alien to the flourishing of evil. What it is about the U.S.A. that makes perfectly respectable holidays go a little wiggy when they reach our shores, I don't pretend to know, and besides it is irrelevant to the scope of this study.
I won't detail the atrocities my chums and I used to commit, but I will say that in my day boys showed an astounding genius for increasing the amount of misery in the world, and the varieties of it. When we rapped on a man's door and hollered, "Trick or Treat!" we expected to be "treated" to nothing less than the contents of his wall safe or its equivalent in pastry. Failing this, we perpetrated "tricks" on the scale of the commando raid on Dieppe or the Sepoy Mutiny. Halberds, longbows, maces, corrosive acids, parangs, bolas, becketts, waddies and garrotes were just a few of the implements of our vengeance. When we returned home we left behind us a scene resembling a seaside community after a tidal wave, with cars nestled in trees and railroad tracks twisted like hairpins around telephone poles.
In contrast to this, let us look in on a typical modern community on All Hallow's Eve.
For several weeks the local merchants have been stocking their shelves both with the impedimenta of terrorism and the wherewithal for defending against it. Businessmen have always been opportunists in times of civil disturbance, and they are no different on this occasion. They favor neither side and encourage both. The supermarkets are no-man's-lands where foes mingle around a single source of supply.
In the offensive arsenal we find such dreaded weapons as these: cheesecloth costumes representing witches, monsters, hobgoblins, and such irrelevancies as pirates, nurses and field mice; gauze masks of vampires, skulls, black cats and reigning television celebrities. In addition there are brightly designed shopping bags for the collection of loot. And of course the inevitable boxes of chalk, in gentle pastel shades.
On the defense side, we have materiel calculated either to frighten or placate wicked imps, and this includes cardboard
skeletons and similar hexes, papier-mache pumpkins with or without electric bulbs, and immense stores of candy stamped in shapes of familiar figures of demonology, including Dracula, Old Harry, Quasimodo and Donald Duck. Everything is displayed in the approved way of merchandising goods, and all products are arranged so as to put the least strain on the imagination.
Since mothers buy the things children use on Halloween, it is small wonder that harmlessness characterizes the holiday. In fact, safety is the theme, and everyone conspires to make sure that nobody is hurt, frightened or even vaguely discomfited.
Selected walls are provided by the Chamber of Commerce for children to deface with chalk. Boys and girls are told that scaring adults could result in heart attacks, and since no child wants to bear for life the responsibility of an adult's death, he restricts his haunting to well-modulated, apologetic moans. Drivers are alerted to proceed with more than usual caution, because the little terrorists can't see approaching cars out of the corners of their masks. Further to this end, phosphorescent insignia are sewn on sleeves and pants legs. Policemen are called out on special service, not to prevent violence and plundering but to help marauders cross the streets. Parties are thrown to keep them off the streets altogether, and games are provided, such as ducking for apples, to help them vent their diabolic urges.
The small and hardy nucleus of children not intimidated by anxious parents stalks the streets raising a kind of hell peculiar to twentieth-century American children. Disguised as ghosts, field mice or Ben Caseys, they go from door to door lisping, "Trick or Treat" with full expectation of cooperation, and without the least idea of what to do if they meet with resistance. But there is never resistance, and cooperation is abundantly given. Mothers and fathers greet them cooing and gurgling over their costumes and ardently pressing chicken-corn, halvah and late-vintage pennies upon them. The operation is brief and streamlined, and if there is either pleasure or pain in the exchange it's almost impossible to detect. But the children, having taken all this for granted, dump their booty into their particolored shopping bags and toddle along to their next victim.
Thus, in a manner of speaking, we can say that Halloween is a very perilous night indeed. At no other time is the danger to healthy youth more apparent. We seem to have forgotten that three prominent elements of a child's psychology are imagination, defiance, and destructiveness. Give a child an educational game and, if he has any spirit at all, he'll quickly destroy the game and find endless, interesting things to do with the box it came in.
Children don't want cooperation and supervision on Halloween; they want to be challenged every step of the way. They don't want treats unless it costs the donor something in mental anguish. They don't want monitored parties or well-lighted streets; they don't want prefabricated costumes or specially designated places where they can destroy worthless property. They simply want to raise hell.
I'm not taking the position that children are pure monsters, because I'm wise enough to know that nothing is pure in this world. But I do think it's vital that we recognize a strong tendency in every normal, healthy child to be uncivilized. Halloween gives him an excellent chance to exercise the antisocial attitudes he's contained the rest of the year. If we suppress these completely, we'll be stopping up a vital source of creativity. This can lead to high-school dropouts, heavy drinking, radical socialism, thirty-one percent more cavities, botulism and premature baldness. Let us therefore restore this holiday to its former position of indignity and disrespect. Or else let's find a suitable alternative. We have a Mother's Day and a Father's Day, so the best substitute would be Children's Day, completing the trend toward child-worship that has been going on since child-labor laws liberated the flower of our youth.