When I was a kid, Halloween was a night of freedom, fun, and candy. Our parents never accompanied us. We were neighborhood kids, and this was our community.
Years later, when I had a child of my own, some aspects of the holiday had changed. A parent always accompanied each group of kids. Neighborhoods were more spaced out and the danger from cars increased.
What didn’t change is the excitement my son felt — his costume carefully thought out and prepared. He eagerly waited for dusk and the festivities to begin. I loved hearing the sound of my son squeal with unadulterated glee as we went door to door with our family, including our dog and many others. On Halloween we were ALL family no matter our race, politics, or socioeconomics.
The moms would dress up as witches to greet us with hot cider. At one house a mummy propped up on a bench came alive when we rang the doorbell. This wasn’t some machine, but rather a real person scaring the wits out of us! Cul-de-sacs became block parties. Other adults in our neighborhood stood around bonfires, some enjoying Devil’s Grog or maybe a stogie. The night was a celebration!
As a mother in her 60s who has lived in Connecticut nearly my entire life, I have experienced Halloween as a child, parent, and neighbor. Over that time, I have seen Halloween change from my favorite holiday to another sad example of community fear and division. In the past there were so many children we ran out of candy and had to resort to giving out quarters and apples. As the years went by, we began to have a lot of candy left over at the end of the night. Only a few older teens were trick-or-treating at our house. Eventually, we stopped needing candy altogether; children don’t come to our door anymore.
What’s changed? For one thing, I have! As executive director of a statewide non-profit that speaks out against the injustice of marginalized people, I see up close the societal and human cost of irrational fear and how it erodes the strength of our communities. Such fears lead to public policies that are destructive and ineffective, costing precious taxpayer resources and doing more harm than good.
Urban legends abound during Halloween. Some are harmless, but others cause extreme reactions from parents to imaginary dangers. In 1970, the New York Times published an article claiming Halloween goodies could bring “more horror than happiness.” It spread fears of candy-tampering that were fueled by the era’s social upheaval and the sense that neighbors could no longer be trusted. The resulting rumor panic ended homemade Halloween treats for children and led to “safe” spaces at trunk-or-treat events or the malls.
Yet researchers have found zero instances of a stranger killing or seriously injuring a child with Halloween candy, and the Times itself has admitted its mistake. However, other media outlets continue to spread this myth because it “sells papers,” (or drives clicks) which creates more fear, which leads to more mythical stories, which sells more papers.
For the past few decades, the media has focused on another boogeyman in our neighborhoods: the person who has been convicted of a sexual crime (more egregiously known as a “sex offender”). Journalists who create sensationalized stories direct parents to the online Sex Offense Registry. The product-research site Chamber of Commerce erroneously ranks towns on Halloween safety in part based on the number of individuals convicted of sexual offenses living there, despite the fact that the Registry website itself states that being on the Registry is not an indicator of dangerousness.
The research has shown that children are at no higher risk of being sexually harmed on Halloween than any other day. The vast majority of sexual offenses against children are by other children or trusted adults in their social proximity. Additionally, more than 95% of sexual crime is by people who are not on the registry.
For the fathers and mothers who are on the Sex Offense Registry, or have a loved one on the Registry living with them, Halloween is a time to be in your home with lights off and absolutely no exterior decorations. Parents and grandparents on the Registry often have children who would otherwise be trick-or-treating with them. Their children don’t get to participate with the entire family on Halloween. Why are these children being punished?
Much as with the persecution of witches, today’s myths cause suffering based on nothing more than feelings of fear and hate. The fear of strangers continues today in mythical poisoned candy, the boogeyman of the “sex offender,” and other false beliefs. Only time will tell who the next group to be feared (and hated) will be. We are all strangers to someone.
As news organizations face pressure to generate revenue, their journalistic integrity will continue to erode. The media can provide a real public service through insightful and well-researched reporting. Or it can also cause real harm through spreading imaginary dangers. The public must hold the media accountable for misinformation if it is to stay well-informed with accurate facts. Until certain media outlets stop their sensationalism and fear mongering, it’s up to the public to be critical about what they are being told. It is easy to give into fear; we create healthier and safer communities by seeking and understanding the truth.
The unvarnished truth is that the real and greatest threat to our children on Halloween is the automobile. Kids are three times more likely to be hit by a car on Halloween than on any other night of the year. By focusing on imagined dangers, communities are failing to take action that could actually protect children.
Our communities need to stop chasing the latest media ‘witch hunt’ and come together as neighbors. We can start by getting more involved in local government and other community organizations. Maybe we’ll even find a way to make Halloween fun again.
Cindy Prizio is a member of the Connecticut Mirror Community Editorial Board.