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All Hallows Eve: The Evolution Of Halloween

A History Of Halloween: Samhain To Trick Or Treat

Halloween Tricks

Halloween Tricks

To those who rail at seeing toilet paper in the trees on the morning after, consider these Halloween pranks:

Kids in 1879 collected teakettles, boots, and stones, and piled them in a neighbor's vestibule, knocked on the door and bolted. Bang. Ouch. They coated chapel seats with molasses (1887), exploded pipe bombs (1888), built huge pyramids of stones on streetcar tracks, and smeared the walls of new houses with black paint (1891). The employees of a butcher shop in Albany, NY stole corpses from a nearby medical school and hung them in front of a rival's shop on Halloween in 1894. Two hundred kids with bags full of flour attacked all the well-dressed folks on streetcars in Washington DC in 1894. They strung ropes across sidewalks and tripped people ambling along, tied the doorknobs of opposing houses together, broke trees, mowed down shrubs, upset swill barrels, poured crude oil on sidewalks, shattered windows, attempted to jack up churches, greased trolley rails, removed telephone poles, and, yes, it's true, once filled the streets of Catalina Island with boats.

As you might imagine, these Halloween tricks could be a bit incendiary. In fact, it wasn't unusual to have all-out war between homeowners and gangs of boys. Children were shot--an eleven-year-old on Long Island for example (for tapping on a window), and a twelve-year old trying to soap a window with soap (both in 1924). One particularly unfortunate principal in Pasadena, CA had his house covered with brown paint and obscene words, then bombarded with eggs and tomatoes. As a final touch, kids threw a bucket of paint through the front window.

As the century rolled along and more and more people crowded into American cities, Halloween pranks took on all the earmarks of existing social tension: a police officer was killed in a 1903 Halloween race riot in Atlanta and there was a cross burned at a church on Long Island in 1923. Extreme pranking incited extreme measures on the part of the police. It was normal in the 1920s for a city like LA to add 800-900 extra men for the night or to post one hundred men on the LA rails to guard the tracks against Halloween mayhem. It wasn't a huge leap from this large-scale defensive position to an offensive one. In 1942, for example, the Chicago City Council voted to simply abolish Halloween.

World War II shortages made everyone edgy, and towns clamped down on Halloween pranking with both curfews and notices sent home from principals and police. There was a national plea for conservation: any piece of property damaged during Halloween pranking was a direct affront to the war effort. Pranks were no longer seen as mischief, but as vandalism.

By the time the war was over and country turned its attention back towards fun, there was a new way of thinking about the "Halloween problem," which, truth to tell, was already waning a bit. Now there was a concerted effort to divert Halloween pranksters rather than battle or punish them. A non-profit body called the National Halloween Committee set out to persuade moms and dads to throw home parties for their kids, with a goal of sparking 11 million indoor Halloween parties in 1948. Since kids would soap their windows anyway, shopkeepers got together and started running window painting contests, which became very popular in cities across the states. Even President Truman got involved, proclaiming October 31st "Youth Honor Day" in 1950 in hopes that that awards ceremonies might keep kids busy that night. But the final coercion was irresistible: Halloween trick or treating.

Although there were bands of kids out accosting people on the streets and banging on doors begging for money or candy earlier that the 1950s, it was not a coast-to-coast phenomenon, and by no means a universally accepted one. Some homeowners were downright hostile: a woman in Miami (1950) gave red-hot coins to a gang of kids who demanded money. Police in Greensboro, NC rode around on Halloween night with 5,000 packages of cookies to give to gangs of kids in hopes they wouldn't bang on home owner's doors. There were angry pieces in the newspaper claiming it was extortion; even some of the kids themselves protested: the 1948 Madison Sq. Boys' Club parade featured signs saying, "American boys don't beg."

Then came UNICEF. The idea of trick-or-treating for UNICEF (originally known as The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) came when a group of kids from the Philadelphia area sent a small donation of cash to UNICEF - money they'd collected at Halloween. The idea spread like wildfire: in 1954 500,000 kids raised $200,00. By 1956 Eleanor Roosevelt was the inaugural (photo op) donor and the campaign raised $792,000. In 1961, John F. Kennedy kicked it off, and by 1965, the year UNICEF won the Nobel Peace Prize, 3.5 million kids had raised $5.5 million. Trick or treat for UNICEF paved the way for trick or treating in general: it was considered uncharitable, almost un-American, not to open your door to kids on Halloween night. The food companies weren't far behind--once the giants got into the candy business (Beatrice Foods, Borden, National Biscuit Company and eventually, even the tobaccos, like Philip Morris) Halloween profits were substantial--$300 million in 1965. The attitude shift towards Halloween was complete: Trick or treating was no longer seen as a prank; it was every American child's right.

Then came a new wrinkle in Halloween pranks: adults started playing them. A woman on Long Island in 1964 gave out ant poison discs as a joke to kids she thought too old to be out trick or treating. In Miami, a housekeeper tossed barbiturates into treat bags by mistake; in Philadelphia, it was tranquilizers. The first rumblings of razor blades in apples emerged in the late 60s--reports came from New Jersey, Toronto, and beyond. Modern day witches (Sybil Leek and the Bucklands for starters) came out in the newspapers, and hinted there were hundreds of covens in America. News reports spread fear of Halloween psychos like wildfire, and regardless of the actual outcomes of each incident (hoaxes abounded and America was not overrun by bloodthirsty witches), this was the 60s and American culture was rife with tension of all sorts: racial, inter-generational, fear of drugs, of child abuse, even of Satan. Cities resuscitated their efforts to curtail Halloween trick or treating: Massachusetts even tried (unsuccessfully) to ban it in 1970.

By the end of the 20th century Halloween pranks, with notable exceptions, more or less settled down into egging, papering, doorbell ringing and the occasional false fire alarm. In a way, the campaign to calm Halloween had succeeded: over the course of the 20th century it was re-focused as a holiday for younger and younger children, with parents and civic leaders able to define the night's behaviors. The more Halloween became "for children," the more it was controlled by adults. The emphasis turned to safety - for both homeowners and children. On the other hand, with so many adults joining in more and more outrageous Halloween celebrations, the final chapter of the venerable Halloween trick is yet to be written.

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