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On a front lawn in suburban New Jersey, ghouls are dismembering a bloody “corpse” with a chainsaw. A blood-curdling scream pierces the night as plastic rats with glowing red eyes lurk behind tombstones and freakishly huge spiders crawl up the house.
For years this house, like many others, has been displaying elaborate Halloween decor designed to scare the wits out of innocent passers-by. And while it achieves the desired shock effect for adults, a fair number of children are carried away from the creepy scene in tears.
What’s happened to Halloween? Adults are taking it over: Americans are expected to spend $8 billion on Halloween this year, according to CNBC, up 16 percent from 2011. That buys a lot of fake blood. A holiday that used to mean homemade costumes, jack-o-lanterns and bobbing for apples now means terrifying weapons, ghastly spurting “wounds” and nightmarish creatures. In the name of shopping for costumes or trick-or-treating, children are now routinely confronted with images and ideas once reserved for R-rated horror movies.
Have adults become so preoccupied with subjects like death and sex that they’ve hijacked Halloween?
Professor of anthropology Dr. Cindy Dell Clark says to some extent they have.
“The real benefit of Halloween is for adults, not children,” she said. “It’s one day where they can have the catharsis of just mocking death in its face, lampooning it, pinning it up on their house. But,” she cautioned, “for children it’s serious. At age six or seven, when adults take them to a haunted house, they are truly frightened.”
Clark, the author of Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith: Children’s Myths in Contemporary America, studied six-and seven-year old children to assess their involvement with ritual and belief. In her 2005 study, she said children who were shown printed images of traditional Halloween icons like bats, spiders and haunted houses were frightened “without exception.”
“Adults think these icons are fun. But children don’t experience those symbols the same way adults think they do,” she said. “Kids considered them to be so verboten, scary and grotesque, they put the cards under the sofa so they wouldn’t have to look at them.”
New York parent Caty Bartholomew said her daughter Claire had a similar reaction to Halloween imagery at that age.
“Between age two and five or six, Claire was just scared of Halloween in general,” she said. “It was over-stimulating. Then, at around seven, she decided she wanted to dress up as a fairy.”
Now 10, Claire said she likes Halloween -- in measured doses.
“I think it’s kind of fun-scary now,” she said. “Sometimes it’s fun to get scared just the right amount.”
Bartholomew said she traditionally brings her daughter to a child-friendly parade in their Brooklyn neighborhood that does not expose Claire to some of the more graphic, adult elements of Halloween. What is harder to shield her from, however, is what she calls “the sexification of Halloween.”
“If you walk into a costume store you see a sexy fire fighter, a sexy nurse, sexy everything. There’s something really offensive about taking jobs that really help people and turning them into sex objects. Maybe that’s really fuddyduddy of me, but it does bother me. Sexy nurse, sexy doctor -- I just feel like, why?”
Bartholomew said they left the store when the only vampire costume they could find was a “sexy vampire.” “If your kid doesn’t fit into a kids costume any more, you’re in trouble,” she said.
In fact, this year a company called Yandy.com is ringing up online sales of sexy costumes inspired by Sesame Street characters. Another costume site shows voluptuous models wearing Elmo, Big Bird and Cookie Monster hats paired with fuzzy hats and thigh-high stockings. Is nothing sacred?
Not surprisingly, teenagers are wasting no time jumping on the adult bandwagon. One high school girl in Montclair, New Jersey recently informed her mother that she and her friends had devised a plan to dress up as “slutty fairytale characters” for Halloween.
“I think I’ll go as slutty Bo-Peep,” she said airily.
“Anything’s that sexualized has a detrimental effect on a child,” warned New York Child Psychologist Dr. Caire Ciliotta, who said the emphasis on adult themes, combined with the rampant commercialization of Halloween, has obscured its underlying meaning.
“It used to be called All Souls Day, All Saints Day . . . there was a sense of honoring the dead,” she said. “It was about the spirit returning. Now, if you talk to any kid on the street, they have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Ciliotta said the kind of gory imagery children are exposed to at Halloween is particularly worrisome.
“Halloween does traumatize children, because they are introduced to incredibly violent, murderous images without any context,” she said. “A child under five fundamentally would never have seen anything like that – it’s their first encounter with violence, brutality, death. I promise you, children aren’t asking to see that. It’s the parents who want to see it and they bring the child along.”