I’m not a millionaire. I don’t own a home in the Bay Area, nor am I ever likely to. But if I did, here’s what I’d do.
I would take out a large ad in the local paper (or whatever online rumor-and-hearsay mill people now mistake for local journalism) and put my friendly, goofy, waving-hi photograph in it.
The copy would read as follows:
Hello. I’m Jen Burke Anderson, and I’m your neighbor. I live at 123 Maple Street, and I work at such-and-such a place. Some of you may have seen me around, and now you know my name and where I live.
On Halloween Eve, I’d like to invite you and your kids to my house for trick-or-treating. For those too young to remember, this means that your kids will wear adorable costumes, come up my walkway with all the cool glowing jack-o-lanterns, ring my doorbell, yell trick-or-treat! when I answer, then hold open their trick-or-treating bags (a cheesy SpongeBob pillowcase also works for this) and get some packaged mini-Snickers bars for being so adorable.
I will also be in an adorable costume, and I will throw my hands in the air and squeal what spooky ghosts and goblins your kids are. I will wave hello to you, Mom and Dad, so that you can see I’m a decent person with a fixed address and a nice demeanor, and I can see that you are decent people with fixed addresses and nice demeanors, and going forward I can keep an eye out for your kids whom I now recognize, and we can all stop believing that every other person besides ourselves is a child-poisoning sociopath.
By the time I was trick-or-treating as a kid in the 1970s, the tradition was already fading out. A string of articles had begun running in the media, depicting tales of malicious anonymous strangers ruining kids’ Halloween fun by putting razor blades in candy apples and handing out sleeping pills disguised as candy.
According to USC Sociologist Barry Glassner in his 1999 book “The Culture of Fear,” this damaging, long-running urban legend was kicked off by no less than the New York Times in October of 1970; the media, always hungry for a quick, sexy, easy-to-write-about moral abomination, took the Poison Halloween ball and ran with it through the late 1980s, warning us that trick-or-treating would result in “more horror than happiness”; Dear Abby predicted that this year, “somebody’s child will become violently ill or die” from poison candy or razor blades in apples.
Then a sociologist named Joel Best undertook a study of every Unhappy Halloween incident reported since 1958. Turns out only two of them were actually true — and in each case, it was the child’s nutjob parents, not malicious strangers, who’d done the poisoning.
But to heck with all those “facts” and “studies” from so-called “academics”! We like our Moral Decline stories, and we’re sticking with them. Fear gives us purpose. By the late 1980s the conjecturing around Halloween Horrors had extended to the ridiculous: I remember people saying that now even packaged candy was no longer safe, because gosh, someone could inject the poison into your mini-Butterfinger, and how would you ever know?!
So OK, skip the studies. Let’s just use common sense.
First of all, have you ever tried to stick a razor blade into an apple in such a way that it’s not absurdly obvious to the healthy human eye?
Second, if it turns out that I, as your neighbor, am a child-poisoning sociopath, guess what? You know where I live! You know who I am! You know what I look like! Take a picture, if you want, and press charges! For heaven’s sake, send me to jail if I’ve done something abominable!
Here’s the thing: I don’t want to be the only one in the neighborhood going out on the trick-or-treat limb. I want you to open your homes to trick-or-treaters too, so that we can revive trick-or-treating culture: the nice world some of us can remember, where neighbors recognized each other and looked out for each other. This world didn’t just feel safe; it was safe, because people were collectively accountable.
Trick-or-treating wasn’t just for kids, it was for the grown-ups too. It was a fun way for everyone to see each other, check in with each other, decorate our homes and ourselves, demonstrate our creativity and show something of ourselves.
And, of course, there were the related goofy pranks and the late-night hi-jinks, especially important to teenagers who were testing the boundaries between mischief and malice. Malicious pranks hopefully precipitated a serious talking-to and grounding; mischievous pranks resulted in pants-peeing hilarity and fond memories for years to come. These things should be part of anybody’s happy childhood.
Am I saying there aren’t horrible people in the world who do horrible things? Absolutely not. Some of these people may even be closer to us than we think.
But think about it. Do we really make our world any safer when we take the low road, lock our doors and kill the lights, and impose voluntary martial law on ourselves? Are we so comfortable with understanding every unknown element to be some moral black hole into which our kids will certainly fall, that we would deny them the knowledge that people can be good, that community is something we can easily achieve? Would we deny them a reasonable amount of general good faith to take into adulthood? Is this not a crime in itself?
Come on, bring those little ghosts and goblins by, and invite the others to your homes, too. A stack of Stephen King books doesn’t scare me nearly as much as the idea that we’ll never trust each other enough to have trick-or-treating again.
And if you Big Kids have water balloons, I am so ready for you.
Now, here’s The Mumlers doing “Coffin Factory” off their new album, Don’t Throw Me Away! Happy Halloween!