Monday, September 23, 2019

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What happened to Halloween?

I stopped associating Halloween with feelings of fear and fright a long time ago. But this year, things were different, and it had little to do with ghosts and goblins and other equally fantastical symbols of Halloween. What I found terrifying was the pervasive silence that characterized this year’s Halloween celebrations.

In my experience, Halloween was an opportunity for boys to wreak havoc on the community of adults that dictate the terms of their existence for the other 364 days of the year. Halloween was an opportunity to band together and settle scores with school principals, local grumps and other offending adults. The instruments of these activities ranged from the more traditional weapons of rotten eggs and bars of soap to the contemporary array of fireworks and firecrackers. Truly, when I was growing up it wasn’t a satisfying Halloween unless a flaming paper bag full of dog shit was extinguished by a nice pair of loafers, irrespective of one’s candy haul. The true joy was in the awareness that, at least for one night a year, the kids were in control.

As with most traditions, the Halloween hijinks were generally well tolerated by the adult community. There was a shared understanding between adults and kids that, so long as nobody got really hurt, Halloween essentially constituted a free pass to misbehave. Each year, we would all throw our orange UNICEF beggar-boxes in the garbage given to us by our mothers, and set off to blow various things up as per the instructions provided by our fathers. It was, needless to say, a lot of fun.

Of course, before I came to any conclusions about the implications of this year’s tame Halloween, I had to make certain that it wasn’t merely a local anomaly. I recently moved to Ottawa, so I hoped that the lifeless Halloween was merely a product of Ottawa’s bureaucratic culture and not a society-wide trend. Unfortunately, after phoning friends across the country, it seems that this isn’t the case. A friend of mine in Vancouver, who happens to live in a neighbourhood famous for its firecracker wars, couldn’t find a single spent Roman Candle cylinder or bottle rocket stem. Among the friends that I surveyed, not a single one noticed a set of soapy windows or an egg-covered car, sure-fire signs of the work of ten year olds on Halloween.

So, I have more or less reliable evidence that this disturbing trend is not merely an Ottawa phenomenon. I don’t have an insuperable body of evidence to support my suspicions, but I believe that the lack of Halloween-related deviance is part of a larger trend in society. Parents have become increasingly concerned about preparing their children for “adulthood,” and consequently feel the need to discourage activities that are considered “childish” or unproductive. Idle play is wasted time that could be better spent studying, volunteering or working – or so the logic goes.

I’m not trying to pin this directly on parents, because for the most part I suspect that they aren’t overtly preventing their kids from being kids. It’s more likely that children are policing themselves, responding to the perceived expectations and desires of their parents. In this age of political correctness gone amok, I suppose the demise of traditional Halloween celebrations makes sense. Since pranks are sure to hurt someone’s feelings, they’re not acceptable. Today’s kids, who have been raised in a culture increasingly dominated by safety Nazis and an education system that has taught them to fear the world in which they live, seem to have gotten the message, for better or worse.

The implications for society as a whole are more serious than one might expect. While the law and order types are probably pleased with the decline of juvenile deliquence on Halloween, it highlights an alarming general trend among kids. As far as I can tell, children are slowly being deprived of both the right and ability to play. I noticed a similar trend this past summer; on days when children should have been out chasing each other, playing baseball, and generally being kids, they were nowhere to be found. Anecdotal evidence points overwhelmingly to video games and television as the chief culprit responsible for driving kids indoors. Numerous articles have been written that try to sound the alarm bells with respect to this fundamental change in behaviour, and I don’t think people have been paying nearly enough attention to them. Studies show that children are fatter, lazier, and more reliant on technology rather than their own vibrant imaginations to provide entertainment.

There are obvious physical health risks that are a result of this culture of passive sloth. But the mental damage is equally devastating. When I was growing up, my father would constantly remind me that “I’m not your entertainment director.” This surly bit of fatherly advice was his way of encouraging me to use my imagination to create my own fun rather than clicking on the idiot box and tuning out. Inevitably, my imagination would kick into high gear around Halloween, as I tried to figure out creative ways to punish the offending adults in my life. That children today are either unable or unwilling to do the same is, for me, a chilling thought.

Ultimately, I don’t want to make the lack kids engaging in low-level pyrotechnics and other Halloween-related mischief into a sign of the imminent fall of western civilization. To be honest, I’m not really sure what it means yet. I have my suspicions; kids are extraordinarily perceptive, and I’ll bet they’re picking up on the concerns and apprehensions of their parents. When I was young, my father took me aside and showed me how to launch a bottle-rocket properly and safely. In turn, I took this as a sign that this type of behaviour was acceptable, within certain limitations(which for my father included launching them at the roof of a particularly unpleasant neighbour). The world has always been a dangerous place, and I’m not convinced that it’s more dangerous today than it was fifteen years ago when I was a kid. Let’s let kids be kids, and give them back their one day of the year.

1013 words, November 8, 2002.

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Max Fawcett

Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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