The Halloween Hangover

We just passed another Halloween here in Chico, a night that arrives with a certain amount of dread and nervous expectation. Extra hours are assigned to local cops, and extra vigilance is demanded of anyone venturing into downtown, or any of those blocks near what is known as “the zoo”—a phrase of such widespread notoriety that it has entered the Urban Dictionary, and added to Chico’s rep as a place for rowdy partying. What we know locally— grownups in costumes, behaving badly—is now pretty much the signature of Halloween everywhere. It wasn’t always so.

Scholars searching for when and how things started going seriously sideways in this country might start with the change in the way we observe Halloween. When I was a kid, back in the long-ago Eisenhower years, Halloween was almost exclusively devoted to children. In downtown stores in towns from coast to coast, local businesses would sponsor contests for the best costumes. Service clubs would put energy into converting old vagrant dwellings into “haunted houses.” The local movie theatre would show crackly versions of Dracula, The Wolf Man, or maybe a more current screamer from William Castle. Down at Woolworth’s or Kresge’s, costumes were on sale, made of extremely cheap and often quite flammable material, outfits meant to transform kids into pirates or princesses, cowboys or cats.

In my working class neighborhood, moms usually sewed costumes for their children. One year, I won second prize— a ViewMaster—at the local movie house, for my mother’s best attempt to turn a skinny nine-year-old into Batman, a comic book hero yet to be transformed into the “dark prince” of big budget blockbusters for a more cynical time.

My generation viewed growing up with dread and suspicion. We inhaled novels by Jack Kerouac and others, almost all of them about fleeing the responsibilities that came with growing up, driving as fast as possible to outrun adulthood. Famously, as we left adolescence behind, we marked the passage with the slogan “don’t trust anyone over 30.” We became hippies, playing dress up with year-round costumery. And we started to build a drug culture that would turn the whole nation into Batman’s Gotham, a place where drug-related violence was never absent from the front pages of city newspapers.

As the ‘60s turned darker, with assassinations and the horrors that filtered back from Vietnam, we clung to visions of childhood, and we began converting Halloween into a celebration not for kids, but for adults. The gay community first expropriated Halloween as a freak show and bacchanal, and the so-called counter culture made it a time for dropping a little acid, or doing a doobie or a line of coke with friends, all gathered together in trippy and increasingly ghoulish drag. Even suburban “straights” decided that Halloween was the perfect time for boozy parties where spouses could flirt with trouble while pretending to be things they weren’t. Regional sales managers dressed themselves up as masked gangsters in order to mingle with escrow clerks from local mortgage companies dressed as harem girls.

Meanwhile, the ritual of trick-or-treating became less and less appealing, even frightening. Stories began to pop up, in towns large and small, of people who put poison or razor blades in the candy or the apples given to the children who rang their doorbells. Within the space of a single generation, a time of year once devoted to candy for kids lost its innocence. The hours kids spend trick-or-treating have now been cut back severely. In some communities the custom has been dropped entirely, with more easily monitored gatherings taking place in lodge halls or schools. Those construction paper cutouts of witches and skeletons that once stirred minor fright in children are less central to Halloween these days. Since the 1980s, Halloween has increasingly been seen as just another “beer holiday,” like Super Bowl weekend. Now All Hallow’s Eve has been repackaged and repurposed as an opportunity for boozy adults to play at being post-apocalyptic zombies, those walking-dead metaphors for what we are in danger of becoming.

Nor is this shift unique to the U.S. In the UK, adult costume sales have increased some 700% since 2009, as canny marketing strategies target the adult desire to play dress-up.

According to the National Retail Federation, an estimated 71.5% of Americans celebrated Halloween last year, up from 52.5% in 2005, many of them dressing up as sexy nurses or lecherous doctors. The partying begins a couple weeks before Halloween, and Halloween spending in the U.S. alone hit a record $8 billion last year, with the average U.S. consumer spending $80 on costumes and assorted other stuff marketed for the occasion. This year, Americans will spend $2.6 billion on Halloween costumes, with the most popular outfits being Miley Cyrus in her “twerking” outfit from her VMA media moment, or the characters from Duck Dynasty and Breaking Bad. That’s not chump change, and those aren’t role models for little kids, not in any sane universe.

If you wonder why so many of our politicians are now behaving like spoiled children, or why adult-sized people are dressing up in tri-corner hats with tea bags dangling from them, you might look to what’s become of Halloween. If you’re puzzled about why there seem to be so many who dismiss science, it might be because a couple of generations have seemed reluctant to give up childhood, and have stolen it from the children. If you wonder why there seem to be so many people in high places who are behaving irresponsibly, willing to break the toys unless the other kids play by their constantly changing rules, you might consider how difficult it can be to find adults these days, on Halloween, or most any day you choose.



  1. Anthony Varicelli says:

    Guilty as charged. As an actor, Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. I continue to look forward to it every year, and go through a good deal of effort coming up with a fun new costume each year. I avoid downtown like the plague- I invariable have a friend or 2 hosting an adult Halloween party on the outskirts of town, away from all the insanity, so we can enjoy our own “sane” rand of insanity, making sure everyone is safe and conducted home or invited to stay the night. Halloween isn’t just for kids. Blow the dust out of your shorts and have some fun!! 🙂
    Tony Varicelli

  2. Murray Suid says:

    Jaime, I really enjoyed your article, especially the sweep of history. The image of your participating in a costume competition in the movie theater reminded me of the time I walked across the stage of our local movie house in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I was wearing a very unconvincing, homemade cowboy costume. My mom painted a mustache on my face using one of her lipsticks!

    But although I participated in trick-or-treating, I never liked Halloween. I’m astonished by the statistic that 71.5% of Americans celebrate the holiday. I don’t like dressing up in costumes or even a suit and tie. I don’t like people looking at me. Clearly, I’m in the minority, although I like to have fun, so I hope that Tony won’t worry too much about non-participants.

    My favorite holiday: Thanksgiving. I don’t spend enough time being thankful for the good things in my life. I was going to add that your essays are something I’m thankful for, but I can imagine your critics thinking you paid me for the applause. So I’ll refrain.

  3. Bill Ockama says:

    You write here in Chico but you don’t live there, you live in Magalia. You really suck, dude.

  4. Terry Glover says:

    Another crock of shit from an ignoramus.

  5. A. Pistoffreader says:

    I guess the writer has nothing else to do with his time.