Take the horror out of Halloween

Silly costumes are one thing, but bloody artifacts of horror are another. Why do we expose children to Halloween's cult of death and call it 'fun'? We have no idea what we are nurturing.

When I was a boy, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. My friends and I would scamper from house to house ringing doorbells and trick-or-treating. We had, at best, meager costumes. But fecund imaginations transformed us into pirates or hobos or the Lone Ranger.

When you’re 7 or 8, dark nights are, in themselves, scary enough to spawn all sorts of imaginings. Fears are amplified by clattering columns of dry maple leaves driven by a chilly autumn wind. So why do parents today make things worse by perversely turning what I recall as an innocent children’s harvest holiday into a cult of death?

Artifacts of horror

Recently, I strolled through several stores, checking out this year’s crop of Halloween costumes and masks. It reminded me that Americans are inclined to carry nearly everything to excess, Halloween being no exception.

This season, for just $15, you can purchase a box of three polyresin human skulls with flashing eyes to line your driveway.

Also for sale is a “Mist Making Skull.” “Just add water!” say the directions on the box. The same package carried this warning, “This is not a toy, it’s a decoration.” Such a disclaimer won’t offer much comfort to little children dressed as ladybugs and princesses who will recoil in horror at the skull.

The problem with most artifacts of horror is that fear and violence are too often just below the surface in human consciousness, with unpredictable consequences. We have no idea of the power of suggestion or what we are nurturing when innocents gaze up at glowing skulls or green ghouls’ heads floating around in trees in the front yard.

Graphic images for children?

Of course, a macabre spirit was never far from Halloween. To our medieval forebears, it was Allhallows’ Eve, “the night of the traveling dead,” when witches and demons cavorted with the dead.

Still, you have to wonder what some modern parents are thinking when they indulge their children with whatever is commercially available without reflecting on the grisly ideas they are imparting. Why do we serve children a diet of death and call it “fun”?

I suspect that American parents who buy some truly frightening Halloween paraphernalia for children simply have not seen enough dead people (Hollywood murders don’t count). As a reporter, I covered too many murders and too many wars to find anything funny in death fetes.

At the very least, in the name of fun, may we not be dumbing-down children’s inherent sensitivity? Gazing at one store’s grisly “skull with hair” masks, I wondered if some child might emerge from behind a mask and launch his own private Frankensteinesque experiments to torture a cat.

Reality and history

One store sold a bayonet-sized plastic knife with a hollow translucent blade that sloshed around crimson faux blood. I have seen real blood-encrusted bayonets discarded after the massacre of Palestinian innocents in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Now, as then, I shuddered. I quickly laid down the morbid Halloween dagger and walked away.

The retail rows of decorative faux skulls I saw reminded me of “Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War,” Paul Fussell’s graphic account of US soldiers in the Pacific who mailed skulls of Japanese soldiers to their stateside sweethearts, to be used as ashtrays.

Viewing some pretty frightening and extremely realistic monster masks brought back memories of an interview I did with an Iraqi teenager in Baghdad days after the US invasion in 2003. She was badly traumatized after watching feral dogs gnaw at human corpses in the street in front of her house. At the time, I scribbled in my reporter’s notepad, “Children should not have to see these kinds of things.” Yet in our Oct. 31 death orgies on Halloween, may we not also be traumatizing American children?

I suspect Bosnian Muslim, Croatian, and Serb parents have seen sufficient death in the past 20 years that they would not think of allowing their children to prance about in brutally realistic, death-commemorating masks.

Endorsing the cult of death

Perhaps some of the more hard-core Halloween paraphernalia should carry an “NC-17” rating. After all, children under 17 are barred from extremely graphic movies.

Other Halloween kits deserve at least an “R” rating. Some commercially available strings of Halloween lights are meant to be hung outdoors like Christmas lights. However, the Halloween variety features a dozen very bloodshot life-size eyeballs electrically illuminated.

Some might argue that this Halloween ghoulishness is all part of growing up, but if you believe that, perhaps we should permit schoolteachers to take children on field trips to the city morgue.

Every parent’s worst nightmare is the fear of the loss of a precious child. Yet mindlessly, some think nothing of encouraging children to commemorate an annual festival of death and call it fun. Why celebrate what has become a morbid tradition that is at best unwholesome and medieval?

Halloween need not be what it has become. By all means, trade candy and dress in silly costumes. But don’t unwittingly endorse the cult of death.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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