Whatever Happened to Halloween?

November 1, 2012


Another Halloween Eve-- great candy in the bowl with the green hand that screams and laughs witchily, my artist daughter's spooky decorations adorning the garage, the stairs lined with glowing luminaria... Yet, once again, the door remained silent, without the knock and giggle of a single trick or treater.  This on a street with a cooperative nursery school four houses down, and a five year old right across from me.  Every house is decorated, but what has happened to the kids?  I  know there are at least fifteen on this long block. How disingenuous of me.

I know what happened to the kids.

I know.

We live in the hills of the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, an otherwise very neighborhoodly area, where we all go to protests and public hearings, nursery school fundraisers and memorial walks. When the neighbors across the street got married, my neighbors next door allowed their caterers to set up gas stoves and staging in their garage. That kind of a place.

But on Halloween?  All these people take their kids down to the flat neighborhood down by the lake, where their little ghouls and goblins can easily walk from house to house, gathering the goods from strangers.

Or they even might take them over to swanky (and flat) Hancock Park,  where half the city hurries from mansion to mansion shlepping grocery bags and pillowcases for their loot. I have cousins who live in one of those old places--they say they get over a thousand kids before they run out of candy.

Not neighbor kids. Just kids who would rather collect the booty from people in mansions than walk around their own neighborhoods.

Oh, let me try to be fair.  Perhaps its easier walking, easier to slake massive juvenile greed for glucose in all its wondrous forms. (Silverlake variety) Or  perhaps their neighborhoods are truly grimy and depressing, and as this is a night of fantasy, trick or treating the mansions is their one day to legitimately knock on those stately doors and see how the 1% lives. (Hancock Park variety).

It's also true that the neighborhoods that get the heaviest Halloween traffic tend to really do it up for the holiday--like my cousins, bowing to the inevitable, make lemonade out of it, creating haunted houses and the like.  One year, the last of my kid's trick or treating years, even she had to try Hancock Park, just to see what it was like.  A mob scene, she reported.

The thing is, throughout my daughter's younger life, whether she was a princess or a kitty cat or Pippi Longstocking or a Crash Test Dummy, The Statue of Liberty or Cruella DeVille or Morticia or A 'Fifties Girl Back from the Dead, I was the old fashioned, trick-or-treat-your-own-neighborhood mom.  Even if it meant climbing stairs, climbing hills.  Even if it meant not completely filling a dumptruck with candy.

Because I remembered very well what it meant to circulate in your OWN neighborhood on that all-important night.  It meant knocking on the door of that gray house and discovering that a very nice old lady lived there.  Or the old man in the blue house who gave out full sized chocolate bars.  The people who loved to see your costumes  and wanted to show everybody what you were wearing, and laved you in compliments.  It made the neighborhood real to me.

Bulging bags of candy cannot make up for what kids are losing by trick or treating outside their own neighborhoods.  The essence of neighborhood is what they're losing.  What we all lose.  Without that one night, I don't meet the kids on the block, and they don't meet me.  It's how anonymity is born.  And the less safe the neighborhood, the more important it is that kids know who lives there, and there, and there.  To be a part of a neighborhood, rather than a stranger at a stranger's door.

When my kid was younger, it was a tough sell with my fellow parents, to have the little witches and warlocks go a-knocking in this neighborhood.  I'd often bribe them with a party first, and then take them out as a group. But once the kids could choose for themselves, it was usually just one or two of my daughter's best friends who would trick or treat with her up here--incidentally reaping the bounty of all those houses at which they were often the sole visitors.

But moreso, she learned who lived in all these houses--"the Pixie Stick people", the super-decorators, the nice grandparently people in the black gingerbread house, the owners of that little dog, or that orange cat--oh, that's where it lives.  It makes a neighborhood, and she is of this neighborhood now.  Not just growing up somewhere, anywhere, but here, in a known world.

I know I'm bucking the tide against a more and more impersonal world to ask you all to think twice before you drive kids out of your neighborhood on Halloween.  We live in a world where it's all too easy in general to focus on stuff instead of stopping for a moment to consider the implications.  But when the Halloween booty's gone, the neighborhood relationships we nurture live on, deepening our children's experience of safety and connection to their world.