I’ve lived in New York City for nine years now, and I still have never gotten a trick-or-treater on Halloween — not one solitary pint-sized ghost or Powerpuff Girl. Every year, I buy an economy-size bag of mini-Snickers bars, and every year, I end up eating the entire plastic pumpkin-bowl’s worth of Snickerses myself.
Not that I’d call that a chore, really, and besides, my family never got trick-or-treaters when I was a kid, either. Our street only had houses on one side, and the houses sat pretty far back from the road; on the other side lay a steep hill overgrown with tangled bushes, in which any number of unseen dangers might lurk, so other kids usually wrote the block off as a waste of time and stuck to streets with a better candy-to-walking ratio. The bowl of fancy-schmancy praline bars my mother had optimistically bought would sit next to the front door, arranged carefully in a fan shape; my father would lurk nearby, waiting for 10 o’clock to strike and my mother to admit defeat so that he could finally eat one.
Maybe it’s because I live in a city that I don’t get trick-or-treaters; maybe city kids don’t do that, although we suburban grade-schoolers would have swooned at the prospect of an entire apartment building’s worth of candy collection. Better yet, we wouldn’t have had to go outside — which meant our moms couldn’t have forced us to wear windbreakers over our ballerina outfits. Why do moms do that? What self-respecting gypsy wears a ski jacket? Because I had to, and I still resent it.
I guess that seems quaint compared to the dangers of going door-to-door in a big metropolis, but my parents acted like we lived in Gomorrah with all the rules they laid down for trick-or-treating and the careful candy inspections they conducted after we’d come home. We couldn’t go past the end of Oak Ridge Avenue. We couldn’t accept candy from people we didn’t know. All unwrapped candy, grab bags, and fruit got thrown away; everything else was scrutinized piece by piece for signs of tampering. Our neighborhood consisted mostly of older folks, and most of them went to the same church we did, but my father would still sit at the kitchen table with a flood lamp and a jeweler’s loupe strapped to his forehead, because a pair of 80-year-olds that my brother and I had known since before we could walk might decide to ram a poisoned razor blade into an Almond Joy and kill us.
(Years later, I figured it out. My parents didn’t actually think the friendly cat lady at the end of our road would inject our Milky Ways with cyanide, but under the pretenses of “quality control,” they could set aside certain “suspicious” pieces of our candy … and eat them after we’d gone to bed. And they never set aside the sucky candy for themselves, either, ohhhhh no. We did the legwork, they snagged the Clark bars. Jerks.)
Incorporating sneakers into the costumeNow, of course, free of parental constraints, I can gorge myself on as much candy as I please and ride the subway in my costume sans puffy parka, even in a drafty Spice Girl outfit. In recent years, though, I’ve started picking Halloween costumes based on how easily I can incorporate sneakers into the outfit. I spent enough Halloweens teetering in heels (and treating the resulting blisters) to last a lifetime.
But a lot of women seem to view Halloween as an excuse — or even a mandate — to dress as skimpily as possible, because it’s permissible on that one day to wear the trampy clothing they can’t get away with the rest of the year. It’s kind of a sad comment on our culture that we feel like we have to “dress up as” our own sexuality — and it suggests that, despite the way it’s sometimes marketed, Halloween is really a “holiday” for grown-ups, not kids.
Or maybe it’s a holiday for kids to become grown-ups, and for grown-ups to return to being kids, just for a day. Kids get to wear make-up and heels and dress up like adults; grown-ups get to “play dress-up,” gorge themselves on candy, and shoot silly string at each other. Or maybe that’s just my friends.
But it is an “adult-themed” holiday, not just because so many of us break out the fishnets but because it’s centered around death — or, in the case of the horror flicks my high school friends and I gorged ourselves on, gallons of gore. American society treats the more morbid aspects of All Hallow’s Eve in a somewhat campy manner. We pin cardboard skeletons to our front doors, and carve our pumpkins with silly faces, but the original Jack O’Lantern was sentenced by both St. Peter and the Devil to walk the earth without rest, lighting his way with a candle in a turnip. It’s a day devoted to the concept of ghosts, the restless dead, the sweet “treats” originally bribes to ward off phantoms’ “tricks.” It’s about the monster under the bed. It’s about fear.
For kids, that fear is what makes Halloween fun — sticking their hands into the “brains” (usually cold noodles) at the neighborhood haunted house, but also enjoying the one day when it’s officially okay to get spooked and want to leave their bedroom lights on. Childhood sometimes seemed full of fears to be overcome, especially for kids (like me) who read too much Poe and lay rigid under the covers, not buying our parents’ “it’s just the house settling” explanation — but on Halloween, it’s okay to feel afraid. It’s practically required, in fact. And for kids, that’s a relief.
It’s often parents who feel the most afraid on Halloween, worried their kids will get hurt on busy streets, sickened by poisoned candy, menaced by strangers, emotionally scarred by R-rated slasher movies, suffocated by store-bought masks, felled by colds brought on because they refused to wear windbreakers. So if the adults can’t relax and the kids can’t go out and fill a pillowcase with loot, who exactly is Halloween for?
The candy corporations have a good time, I imagine. Mmm … capitalism has a creamy nougat center.
Sarah D. Bunting is the co-creator and co-editor-in-chief of She lives in Brooklyn.