Thoughts On Adult Halloween

Recently, The Simpsons did their first Halloween episode not part of their much-loved ‘Treehouse Of Horror’ series. In the episode, Marge tries to take Bart trick-or-treating, but is too late–and after 9:00pm, she watches the night change from a fun kids’ party to a decadent adults-only free-for-all (with the help of a jaunty musical number, of course).

While the night’s transformation is over-exaggerated here (I only wish someone would dress up as Bondage Frankenstein), it makes an interesting point. Halloween used to be a holiday people grew out of and celebrated with TCM and a bowl of popcorn. But today, Halloween is as much fun–and as lucrative–for adults as it is for children.

Historically, this makes a lot of sense, and pays homage to the holiday’s origins. On Samhain, and later All Hallow’s Eve, a child’s role was usually listening to ghost stories and eating the occasional imported orange, while it was adults who dressed up in frightful costumes, danced around bonfires, paid homage to the spirits of the earth, and performed the protective rites against witches and the vengeful dead.

Later, as children took up the beggar’s tradition of going door to door and threatening to prank homeowners if they weren’t given food (never forget that the it’s trick or treat, sort of a mischievous protection service), the kids were brought in on the broader action. Once that was commercialized by costume and candy companies, and good ol’ fashioned morals were brought back to America after World War II, children became the focus of Halloween.

So what brought Halloween back to the grown-ups’ table? Why is it more and more acceptable for adults to get in on the fun, and go hog wild while doing it?

The easy answer might be the growing acceptance of uncommon lifestyles. Halloween became the seasonal juggernaut it is in the 1950s, when normality was the greatest virtue any family could possess. The kind of people who love monsters, darkness, and putting on a costume for the Hell of it were seen as societal misfits. But after the Sixties and Seventies, when drugs and sex became more widely accepted as staples of American households, it was recognized that not only was celebrating Halloween still fun, but that it was a chance to let loose a side of yourself that you’d been eyeing all year but didn’t want to commit to.

Perhaps another reason is that Halloween became scary again. In the Fifties, Halloween was more associated with bobbing for apples than it was with spilling innocent blood. But with the 1974 Candy Man murder and John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher classic Halloween, the idea that Halloween was a night where anything could happen–including the darkest, creepiest things you could ever imagine–injected a new vitality into its celebration. Suddenly, sleeping with your costumed neighbors and pounding monster-themed shots seemed tame and fun, because who knew? Maybe there was a candy apple with a razor blade in it out in your neighborhood tonight.

But a more predictable and honest answer is, business prevailed. Halloween is a massively commercial holiday, selling more candy in the US than Christmas and Easter combined. As more and more adults began having fun on Halloween, and horror movies became gorier and creepier, more companies rushed out to bring Average Joes into the fold, creating elaborate yard decorations and revealing costumes. Suddenly, making your lawn a slaughterhouse and wearing a topical outfit became rites of passage in suburban communities where the local megastore was overflowing with ghoulish delights.

One staple of adult Halloween is the sexy costume, which is usually a laughably skimpy parody of a normal Halloween costume. The tradition has been made famous by movies like Mean Girls, and is a big part of Teenage Halloween, where playing with one’s sexuality is still rebellious and explorative. While costumes in general are kind of sexy–who’s behind the mask? Who cares, so long as they’re a good kisser?–the sexy costume officially ups the holiday’s rating to PG-13, promising a side of adults that kids can’t see, and honestly don’t want to.

As someone in his 30’s who loves Halloween, I’m obviously a big fan of adult Halloween–I’ve tried pretty much every pumpkin ale out there, and I’m a big believer in the cathartic element of the night, giving everyone a chance to be the horror they’re sometimes scared to show the real world. That said, I will always defer to kid’s Halloween for tradition’s sake. Let the adults have the weekend before–at its heart, Halloween is about being scared and scary, and that’s never done better than when you’re a child. They get precedent.

Want to learn more about Halloween’s traditions and how it morphed into the holiday it is today? Check out David J. Skal’s wonderful book Death Makes A Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, in which Skal dives into the Candy Man murder, San Fancisco’s queer Halloween in the Mission, and more.

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