Boo, Humbug!

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Ah, October. A hint of mist in the damp air, a rustle from the trees as they shed their leaves in nature's annual striptease and, everywhere you look, ripe, corrugated pumpkins, waiting to be turned into something delicious by a touch of nutmeg and a hot oven. Except that the mist comes from dry ice stuck in a grinning skull, the whisper in the trees from nylon ghosts hung in the boughs, and the pumpkin, made of bilious orange plastic, has a gizmo inside that groans "Whoooooooo ..." as you walk past. Halloween is upon us again.

I hate it.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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Oh, I don't hate the kids who come trick-or-treating to our house, some of whom might almost be considered cute, even if most of the ones over 8 are running a protection racket. And I don't hate the candymakers, the greeting-card printers or the manufacturers — somewhere in Guangdong Province, China, I guess — who turn out all those disgusting plastic decorations that are beginning to disfigure suburbia and who, together, have turned an innocent night of excitement for children into something run by and for adults. Those in the Halloween industry are simply behaving as good capitalists should, following the maxim of that great economist P.T. Barnum that a sucker is born every minute, satisfying a market they have themselves created. Halloween Express, a Kentucky-based chain, now has some 70 franchised stores in 21 states. Americans will spend about $6.9 billion on Halloween this year$2 billion on candy alone, an extra $1.5 billion on costumes and much of the rest on decorations and doodads. Don't get me started on outfits for pets or the move to extend the holiday into an event that runs for a whole season so that it becomes — you'll love this--"Falloween." Only Christmas gets consumers dipping into their pocketbooks with such happy abandon. Stretch Halloween over the whole of October, and it may soon race into first place in the waste-your-money-on-trash stakes.

Still, if companies want to sell even more masks, lanterns, witch hats and the like, good luck to them. It's the gullible consumers who fall for the pitch whom I detest — the employees who insist on decorating sensible cubicles with orange and black streamers and littering the office with bowls of candy, the folk who dress up and throw pumpkin parties at country clubs, the hundreds of thousands who will come to work next week in costume. Chris Riddle is the Halloween trend spotter at card-and-decorations giant American Greetings, which estimates that 25% of the American work force will observe Halloween in some fashion this year. "It's a release," Riddle says of the way people deck out their suburban yards, "a way to say, 'I can still act like a kid.'"

That's my problem. Halloween, for me, is the gaudiest example of the infantilization of American culture. It's up there with other classics like McDonald's Happy Meals or Hollywood's post — Star Wars decision to concentrate on making kids' films for grownups. These aren't just the mutterings of an old curmudgeon. I like parties as much as the next guy (so would you if you'd grown up in a house where the Messiah was considered light entertainment), though I've never quite seen why you needed a specific date on the calendar as an excuse to let your hair down. There's a larger point. In time, infantile societies become degraded, unable to meet the realities that face them.

How did cultural infantilization creep up on us? In The Disappearance of Childhood, a wonderful little book first published in 1982, Neil Postman, a New York University professor who died this month, identified a shift from a culture based on literature — on reading — to one based on the image. In a preliterate world, there's no distinction between children and adults. Look at a Bruegel painting, and you see adults eating, drinking, groping, necking, together with their children. Literacy changed all that. Reading has to be learned; it separates the world of the child from that of the adult. But children can absorb images — from TV, say — just as easily as their elders. Postman worried that a postliterate culture would be one in which barriers that protected children from the perils and temptations of the outside world would be torn down.

Halloween shows that the process works in reverse. We now have to be worried not just about children acting like adults but about adults behaving like children. That doesn't mean adults have to be serious all the time. It does mean that they should recognize when it's time — and what it means — to grow up and let the kids run their own holiday. "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child ..." wrote St. Paul to the Corinthians. "But when I became a man, I put away childish things." Paul had never seen plastic pumpkins going "Whoooooooo ..." but you can bet that if he had, he would have told the Corinthians to put them away.