Tricky treat: Let's reclaim Halloween from fear

Last Halloween, I witnessed a trick-or-treat phenomenon I didn't remember from my childhood. Looking out of my pumpkin- and candle-bedecked windows, I saw kids traversing the neighborhood not on foot, but by minivan. They'd pile out of their parents' cars, hit a few houses, and pile back in again to be shuttled to the next stop.

My first assumption was that these kids must be extraordinarily lazy. But a short trek around the block revealed the real problem-­ very few houses in the neighborhood had porch lights on, and even fewer had any specifically welcoming signs like ghosts or jack-o'lanterns. I realized that any kid traveling by sidewalk would have to walk for blocks to collect a halfway decent sack of candy.

Fear mongering, over-publicized kidnappings and shootings, and persistent urban folktales about razor blades in apples have had a cumulative, erosive effect on the trick-or-treat tradition, and it seems in danger of extinction right alongside the milkman, hitchhiking, and neighbors who know your name and say hello. Instead of going from door to door in the neighborhood, many parents are opting for the controlled environment of private Halloween parties or "trick-or-treating" around the local mall.

This change is another sign that as a culture we're becoming more and more afraid of each other. Which is a shame, because in truth the vast majority of people are no less decent than they were in the "good old days," whenever those may have been.

H. L. Menken said, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety, by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

Following Menken's script, Richard Nixon once said, "People react to fear, not love." Yet the fear created in order to manipulate people toward political objectives or purchasing behaviors makes us shrink not only from the throngs of Satan worshippers, road ragers, and Internet predators we think are "out there," but also from our own neighbors.

Children are encouraged, as a "safe" alternative to visiting homes on their own street, to travel from The Gap to Banana Republic to Victoria's Secret in search of packaged treats in daylight hours. This fear-for-profit cycle also drives "Dateline's" ratings and sells alarm systems.

People have not suddenly begun endangering children more often. It's just that in our information-saturated, Amber-alerting times, we hear about it more often and more quickly when something goes amiss.

Just as Orson Welles' dramatization of "War of the Worlds" caused a panic on Halloween of 1938, many are still ready to believe myths woven around this unique holiday because they tap into authentic cultural fears. In 1938, Martians didn't actually invade New Jersey, but Hitler and Mussolini were bringing Europe to the brink of war; in 2002, it was extremely rare for a child to be snatched off the street by a total stranger, but nationwide, news shows were hammering us with details of five-year-old Samantha Runnion's kidnapping mere hours after it had occurred.

We should use our abundant Information Age resources to combat fear. Start with a Google search for "The Razor Blade in the Apple: The Social Construction of Urban Legends." Two Southern Illinois University professors researched newspaper articles and emergency room records dating back to 1958 and found that the myth of the "Halloween Sadist" who gives out tainted candy to random children was bunk. The only Halloween poisonings they did uncover were, sadly, by a few people who found an opportunity to harm their own children.

Those people are few. The vast majority of parents love their kids. And if you're one of them, why not take this opportunity to dress them up, march them up to every door in your neighborhood, and let the folks fawn over them? While you're there, say hello and introduce yourself.

Don't have kids? Open your door on Halloween. It's only one night a year, only lasts a few hours, and it's a great way to get to know your neighbors. And a neighborhood full of people who know each other is a safer neighborhood. Take a chance. Halloween isn't as scary as you think.

This essay, distributed by the Featurewell service, originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Besides the carnival rides, costume contest, and boo house, fingerprinting was offered at the City-sponsored 4th annual Safe Halloween Festival on October 25.