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Dress Your Children As Paladins

Since the 1960s, rumors of poisoned candy have ignited panic over the safety of trick-or-treating. I have a sneaking suspicion that these rumors were started by fundamentalists, a calculated attack in a broader culture war.

I. The Devil’s Holiday

The first Halloween costume I remember was an androgynous bumble-bee getup: a yellow and black striped smock and a headband with glitter-covered antennae dangling from springs. When I was five I dressed up as a Ninja Turtle, replete with a green plastic mask that made it incredibly hard to breathe. The next year, as a lion, I re-introduced the smock, this time a beige and brown one that had a tail coming out of it. I looked forward to Halloween only slightly less than Christmas. And then it was over. My mom joined some sort of women’s’ Bible study group and the following October announced that we would not be celebrating Halloween anymore. “It’s the devil’s holiday.”

Halloween allegedly comes from the Celtic holiday of Samhain, and was brought to the United States by Irish immigrants. This gets brought up a lot when fundamentalists are talking about the demonic roots of Halloween.1 That the Vatican’s chief exorcist, the expert on demons if there ever was one, has even admitted that Halloween is harmless doesn’t matter because the lion’s share of fundamentalists don’t even think Catholics are Christians.2 Occasionally you’ll hear grumblings about Halloween taking over the Christian feast of All Saints Day, which falls on November 1—the name Halloween derives from “All Hallows’ Even”—though most fundamentalists have little connection to the liturgical calendar save for Easter and Christmas.

Fundamentalists’ greatest weapon is their claim to have Truth and God on their side, and they frame choices in terms of an epic struggle between Good and Evil. Everything is either of God—Christian Music, the Bible and Church, Sports—or of the Devil—all media not labeled Christian (except maybe the Andy Griffith show). Not surprisingly, fundamentalist kids tend to have an over-developed sense of guilt. I was no different. I feared the Devil. He was the sum total of all the world’s Badness. Asking to celebrate Halloween would have been like asking permission to sacrifice our family’s cats.

And yet, I was pretty sure that my friends at school were not co-conspirators with the Devil. Though most years my mom turned off all the lights in the front of the house and put a basket full of candy on the front porch with a sign that read TAKE ONE ONLY, my family occasionally played the part of good American neighbors and passed out candy. I couldn’t help but notice that every kid who came to our door on Halloween looked happy. Maybe they were just naive pawns who had been tricked into helping the spread of witchcraft, I thought.

I knew of one other kid at my school who didn’t celebrate Halloween, but he had seven sisters and everyone knew his family was a bit weird. The other kids I knew of that weren’t allowed to trick-or-treat were all homeschooled. Every Halloween, my elementary school had a big parade. Kids would bring their costumes to school and put them on after lunch. Everyone would line up and parade up and down the parking lot while parents took pictures. After the parade, all the kids retreated to their homerooms for Halloween parties. I, on the other hand, was taken home.

Before the parade, classmates would ask me what I was going to be. “Nothing. My family doesn’t celebrate Halloween.”

“Why?”

“It’s the devil's holiday,” I would say, wishing I was dead or at least already at home. But I was not already at home because my mother was incessantly late for everything. So I saw all the costumes and watched the parade begin and then eventually went home feeling like I had missed out on the most fun that could possibly be had at school.

My neighbors, two ginger-haired kids slightly younger than me, celebrated Halloween as if it were the second coming. Our homes were situated in a relatively isolated neighborhood that attracted the bare minimum of trick-or-treaters; still, they coated the front of their house with fake cob-webs and planted a minefield of plastic gravestones in their front yard. The other eleven months of the year we took the Halloween decorations and played haunted house in their basement.

Their mom spent several weeks crafting their costumes. I was jealous, especially the year one was an ant and the other a scorpion. “Aren’t their costumes cool?” I asked longingly to my mother, hoping that she would bend the rules on Halloween and spend dozens of hours making me a costume.

“I think they go overboard with Halloween. It’s like they make Halloween a religion,” she said, and then turned up the Christian radio station.

II. The Harvest Festival

Fundamentalists don’t want to look like total killjoys, and there exists a whole literature devoted to Halloween alternatives. Some of the merrymaking suggestions include baking cookies, having a “Noah’s Ark” party, and carving Bible verses or crosses into pumpkins. Chief among Halloween alternatives is the “harvest festival.” 3

Organizers of the harvest festivals decorate the church with corn stalks, hay bales, and pumpkins. There are usually games—dumb games—games that kids don’t really like playing. Three-legged races and burlap sack races. And of course, there’d be some sort of devotional at the end to keep peoples’ hearts in the right places.

Maybe, just maybe, a harvest festival will invest in caramel apples, but it’s unlikely. It’s much cheaper to buy tootsie rolls. Kids go home with bags full of plastic-like chocolate, which they devour with some interest for a few days, then abandon. Over the year, tootsie rolls show up in strange places around the house in various stages of decay. I knew a homeschooled kid who found and ate harvest festival tootsie rolls year round, often smashed and covered with rug lint.

I attended a few of these harvest festivals before realizing tootsie-rolls and three-legged races at church were not greater than or equal to trick-or-treating with my friends on the social scale. Then, in 1997, my Republican parents let me buy a Bill Clinton mask from Wal-Mart while passing out candy to trick-or-treaters. It was a giant leap forward. I proudly announced this to my friends at school. “That’s dumb. Why don’t you just go trick-or-treating?”

“Uh, we don’t celebrate Halloween.”

It took me six years to convince my mom to let me trick-or-treat. When my chance finally came at age twelve, I had no idea what to be. I panicked, then put on the baggiest set of clothes that I had, a knit beanie, and grabbed my skateboard. “I’m a skateboarder.” Homeowners looked at me skeptically and reluctantly placed candy in my bag.

And then, just as soon as it had started, it was over again.

In high school, we were too old to celebrate Halloween. When you entered the ninth grade, you made an unspoken pact to never watch cartoons, speak more than four sentences without swearing, or participate in the traditions of our youth. No one did anything for Halloween. No trick-or-treating. No Halloween parties. No costumes. For a brief moment, my fundamentalist upbringing fell in line with being cool.

III. The Hell House

In the quest to win souls by ripping off American pop-culture, someone had the bright idea to create a Christian haunted house, or as they’re called, “Hell Houses.” The goal is to scare people into becoming Christians with the horror of real life. For several years, the megachurch that housed my high school ran one of these hell houses, called The House of Horrors.

The House of Horrors was more terrifying as a sociological experience than as a Haunted House. It was situated in an abandoned building downtown. Standing in line was just as frightening as being in the haunted house itself. Like so many midsize Midwestern industrial cities, my hometown’s downtown is an abandoned shell, and until recently the city had the second highest crime rate in the state of Illinois. The threat of being mugged was almost more terrifying than interns in grim reaper robes trying to evangelize to you.

Eventually they moved the operation to a warehouse in a neighboring town where every family has a pickup truck on blocks in the front yard. People lined up for hours. It is like Ellis Island—the air is thick with expectation, except half the people are wearing NASCAR jackets or Insane Clown Posse sweatshirts. The other half are wearing sweat-shirts with slogans like: “Don’t make me come down there—God.” Every high school boy, chest puffed out, holds his girlfriend with one hand and strokes a patchy mustache with the other.

Every so often the line moves and I feel the pregnant expectation of knowing that I am about to have the shit scared out of me.4 After standing in the cold for two hours, I am padded down by a guy wearing “security” t-shirt before paying ten dollars to get in. I’m led into a small room, completely dark except for a television in one wall which was playing static. I stood there for a few seconds before realizing that a guy in a grim reaper robe was standing next to me.

In a terribly fake British accent, the twenty-one year old reaper welcomed us to the House of Horrors, warned us not to touch anything, and told us to follow him closely. At first they throw the normal scare tactics at you—skeletons that pop out of nowhere, ghoulish figures behind bars, men in Jason masks chasing you with chainsaws that have had their chains removed.5 After about fifteen minutes of this, we were led into another small room where the reaper tells us we’ll be exposed to some real-life horrors.

Walking into the next room, I find myself in what appears to be a cross between a dive bar and an old western saloon. There’s a bartender standing in front of a pretty impressive display of empty bottles, which the cast of the haunted house might have had the pleasure of drinking. This was not the case, though, because most of the cast members were part of an internship program at the megachurch and had signed a commitment not to drink, smoke, or ride in the car alone with members of the opposite sex.

A man sits at the bar wailing about the meaningless of life and making other sundry existential comments that I have never heard uttered in dive bars. Maybe that’s because they’re usually being droned out by ZZ Top’s “Tube Snake Boogie.” Demons meander behind him in black robes. And then in frustration, he throws a bottle down, breaking it behind the bar. I duck to avoid any stray shards of glass.

Our guide whispers something about drowning his problems in alcohol, and we move into the next room, which is totally dark. There’s the sound of screeching tires and a car crash, and a spot light shines on a wrecked car. There are people outside the car talking about how he was driving drunk and didn’t make it. The people seem indifferent. At this point, all of the guests are feeling pretty awful, and the reaper seizes upon this opportunity to say something, again in the strained British accent, about not knowing when our time is up.

From there it gets heavier. There’s a domestic abuse scene with a man beating his wife over not having dinner ready and a scene with a woman haunted by memories of her recent abortion. She is wailing and screaming and again everyone going through the haunted house feels pretty awful. Out of the five or six scenes in the “real-life” section, the only one that is mildly bearable is the demon possession scene, in which a kid is watching a scene from The Exorcist when suddenly a demon pops up and growls something about the demonic realm corrupting kids through movies and ouija boards.

Finally, the reaper asks us whether we know where we’ll end up when we die. Then he proceeds to show us one possibility. Hell. The air is heavy with fog machine smoke and everything has a reddish glow. We’re walking on a narrow path covered with dirt and caged on either side with chain link fence. Behind the fence, people covered in soot and fake blood scream at us. Other people dressed as demons are beating them. The Shining this isn’t, but for someone who had spent the seven years between the ages of five and twelve scared shitless by the TV show MacGyver and the original King Kong, it was plenty scary. I’m no Dante; I walked as quickly as I could without running and looked down at the dirt path the whole way through hell.

After passing through some curtains, I find myself a room with a baby blue backdrop. Everything is calm and there is some light keyboard music playing. Three wooden crosses are propped against the wall. A guy wearing Abercrombie & Fitch jeans and a hoodie with a DIY v-neck cut into it and smelling like they bathed in Hugo Boss cologne tells us that Jesus can save us from all the horrors we saw tonight.

I feel bad for this person who probably lost some bet and instead of being a demon in hell was forced to be the foil for a haunted house. So I say nothing and politely nod, pretending to pay attention. After a few minutes of this, we’re escorted into a room with comfy couches. We sip hot drinks while interns from the megachurch wander the room looking to strike up existential conversations about “what it all means” and where we’re going after we die. I drink three cups of apple-cider and beeline for the door.

IV. My First Halloween Party

Apparently I had not had enough of harvest festival culture, because I chose to attend an evangelical college. There, Halloween was something of a non-entity. A party with adults in costume demands alcohol to break the killer awkwardness of seeing grown men wearing Speedos and a neck full of gold medals pretending to be Michael Phelps. Alcohol being illegal at the college, the parties were sparse. Some students would still go trick-or-treating, which I found to be slightly kitschy. Mostly creepy. The college put on a square dance. My freshman year, a Swedish girl who had grown up in Africa asked me if I wanted to go to the Square Dance. I told her, “Look. I know you haven’t been in America that long, but Square Dancing isn’t cool here.” I proceeded to spend Halloween alone that year studying.

However, the women’s’ floor of my dorm had a March Masquerade. Apparently Mardi Gras is less of a spiritual threat than Halloween (although having seen the Mardi Gras episode of Cops, I don’t buy this for a second). I dressed up as a “one-night-stand,” donning a large box and using a sharpie marker to make it look like a night stand. On the top of the box, next to the hole cut for my head, I glued a table cloth, a small lamp, an empty bottle of wine, a condom, a bottle of lotion, and a box of cigarettes. For many of those girls, I’m sure it was the first time they saw a condom, one of whom filed a complaint. I had to leave the party early when I heard that the woman who ran the dorm was looking for me.

It was not until I was visiting friends in Chicago after college that I went to my first Halloween party. I had visited several Halloween stores trying to find a costume but found that my only options were dropping fifty bucks on some horrific rubber mask or reliving my seven year old dreams as a ninja or pirate. These are not terrible choices, relatively speaking. The options those stores give women: sexy nurse, sexy doctor, sexy cartoon character, or just plain tramp with no pretense of a costume. I ended up borrowing a lab coat from a doctor I knew, found a vase that looked like some sort of beaker, draped some goggles around my neck, and called myself a scientist. The party was a dingy hipster affair that lost steam after everyone had taken the obligatory Facebook pictures. I spent the evening trying to escape a drunk fairy who kept referring to me as Doctor and whom I’m pretty sure actually thought I was a doctor.

The next day, I realized that I was not actually a huge fan of Halloween, at least not now. In reading up on Halloween for this essay, the only non-fundamentalist I read about who wanted to boycott Halloween was the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who said it was part of the U.S. practice of “putting fear into other nations, putting fear into their own people." On some level, he’s right. The terrible yard decorations, the ridiculous slasher and tramp costumes—the gaudiness, the sex, and the violence is all very American. Who knows? Maybe Halloween has just lost its luster for me because it is no longer forbidden.

Still, this year I’ll try to come up with a clever costume, go to a Halloween party and have a few glasses of the vodka punch with smoke coming out of it. I’ll do this because I think Halloween, if nothing else, affords an opportunity—once a year—for make believe, for play. And as the poet W.H. Auden once pointed out, “among the half dozen or so things for which a man of honor should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least.”

Daniel Erlandsson lives and works in Minneapolis.


 

1 BoycottHalloween.com writes: “Rod and Staff Publishers reported that the former queen of whiches [sic] of Europe remarked to a Christian audience in Louisville, KY that she and other withes [sic] and satanists would laugh when they saw Christians participating in Halloween. Why? Because witches and satanists know that Halloween is not innocent. While we may decorate and have fun, the basis of Halloween is a pagan holiday where divination and soothsaying are practiced.”

2 At my borderline fundamentalist high school, my world history teacher said that she didn’t think anyone before the reformation was going to Heaven. This didn’t seem to bother any of my fellow students.

3 The moniker “harvest festival” is a total sham in communities where there is little or no farming going on, which is the majority of American communities considering there are less people farming in America than there are playing World of Warcraft. Some churches forgo the agrarian theme all-together. A friend of mine, whose father was a pastor in the South, attended a “Hallelujah Festival.”

4 I’m using the present tense in describing it because the scenes in the House of Horrors were the same every year and have a sort of always-present and ever-repeating quality about them, almost in the way that it’s impossible for me to think of my grade school teachers retiring or dying. They are still there, somewhere, teaching the phonics and fractions and waiting for me to return.

5 I can’t actually confirm the chains were removed because I ran from them like I’ve never run in my life. I’m assuming it would have been a safety violation for the chains to remain on the saws, but then again, the House did have cows carcasses and heads hanging in plain sight and creating an awful stench before the health department intervened.

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At my school, the alternative for Halloween wasn't Harvest Fest but Reformation Day, since Luther nailed up dem 95 theses on October 31. A convenient cop-out. And only sometimes a fun one when it involved riotous monkish activities.

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