an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Halloween in America – for Young and Old

After World War II, when apartment blocks were being built around the cities of Soviet Russia, suburban private homes were being built in the USA. And 4-6 weeks before the 31st of October, the shelves for children’s toys at the local neighborhoods’ stores, would be filled with special masks and costumes for Halloween. Visages of monsters of various TV programs and stories popular with children: pirates, heros, villains, indians, cowboys, mummies, et al, all were available in the store to buy to wear – for the child “to be” something, or someone else on that evening. The more creative children and parents would often create their own costumes, rather than buy them. But most all parents seemed to enjoy adding pieces of their jewelry or clothing, or face make-up, to their child’s Halloween persona.

“What are you going to be for Halloween?” young children would eagerly ask their friends. Rarely was it a secret. Each child had a definite identity of who, or what, they were going to be on Halloween: witch, dragon, “Super Man”, princess, etc.

Trick or treat!

The school was usually to be decorated for a week with orange and black crape paper, carved pumpkins were here and there, pictures of semi-scary witches, cotton spider webs, and various items of the autumnal season were on the walls of the school for that week. And perhaps a “haunted house” – a classroom converted into a dark “chamber of horrors” for an evening, where the first through sixth graders would walk through (with parents for the younger ones). Seldom was one really scared, though the girls screamed anyway, and it was at least suspenseful for the older ones.

Not long after dark, a child would go with their brother(s) and sister(s) – and mother if young enough – “trick or treating”. (Give me a treat, a candy, or I shall play a trick on you.) From house to house, usually of neighbors, where adults would open their doors to a “trick or treat” yelled in unison by the various assortments of goblins, monsters, personalities, and etc., standing on their porch. As candies were dropped into each child’s open sack, the adult would invariably say something about how “scary” the witch, how pretty the princess, how dangerous-looking the pirate, and so on. Sometimes the youngest children would ruin the whole thing for the somewhat older children, by crying out something like: “Oh Mrs. Gates, Smith or Jones, it’s just me...Julie, John, or Sally...” Off the kids would then go to the next house, the neighborhood street revealing walking shadows of various small groups of kids wandering with their increasingly valuable and heavy sacks of candies, nuts, fruits and such. Home by nine o’clock or so, costumes off, talking about the fun and events or the evening – and most of all, eating the candy!

For adults (20-50), it all has a much deeper character. The children generally would choose a favorite TV or comic book character to dress like. Adults seemed to want to be their “secret self” – someone, or somehow, they had always secretly felt they wanted to be! A child has a fantasy alive enough to not even need a mask; whereas for the adults, the mask, the anonymity given by the mask, was often essential for them to be able to really freely enjoy becoming this evening’s identity. For many the costumes were strict secrets, even if parts of it were bought in the town or city shops especially stocked for two months with Halloween merchandise for adults. Many masks to buy – sometimes graphically-gruesome in their realism. Second-hand stores would be packed for a week with people who may never go there any other time of year.

The adult Halloween I experienced in California consisted of people going downtown to the main street, and just walking around in their costumes in various degrees of mirth and raucousness – to see and be seen. Which were the best costumes? Did we recognize any friends? “Who was that?!!” No sacks for candy here, the adults enjoyed being someone, something, or somehow else for an evening. The freedom to act as one secretly wished, and for no one else to know! Then to drive home to one’s private home; perhaps to confess the next day their secret identity to friends or fellow workers.

Most children, but fewer adults dress-up for Halloween, but all those who do, young and old, enjoy it.

First published in English, #40, October 1996, p. 15.