America’s Halloween Problem

We have managed to kill a day intended to celebrate death.

It’s time to admit it, America: We have a Halloween problem.

I’ve just come home from a year in England where Halloween isn’t really much of a thing. In the past decade or so, dressing up and going to parties has become more popular for adults, but for kids, it hasn’t yet become the kind of obsession it is in the U.S. It is still a relatively novel idea there to have your kids dress up and go trick-or-treating. People just don’t get excited about it. Kids don’t know, yet, that they should be excited about it. But they are learning fast by looking at our example.

Since coming home it has become clear to me that America’s manufactured hype around Halloween has gotten out of control and that the hype has made the holiday a boring reinforcement of cultural and gender stereotypes.

We have managed to kill a day intended to celebrate death.

For kids, Halloween means one thing: candy. It is an excuse for children to walk around asking strangers for candy. An odd proposition to begin with, considering most parents spend a lot of good quality parenting time teaching them, vehemently, not to do exactly that same thing.

But this candy bonanza comes with a catch. In order to tap into a source of sugar strong enough to keep their tiny, growing brains addled for months, they have to dress up as something. So at some point, possibly as early as summer vacation, someone asks them, “What do you want to be for Halloween?”

At this point, the costume is a means to an end. I think what happens next has everything to do with the kind of Halloween culture that exists in your family.

For example, my family had an incredibly strong Halloween culture. We decorated the house inside and out. My father came up with elaborate pranks to pull on the trick-or-treaters when they came up our driveway. My mother dressed up every year to give out candy. We took celebrating Halloween to a level none of our neighbors had ever seen.

As a result of that family culture around the day, my sister’s and my costumes were creative and homemade. We learned how to paint our faces like zombies before zombies were culturally ubiquitous. We searched our closets for clothes that could be turned into costumes. Boxes became robot bodies, balloons became bunches of grapes. We did the shower costume from the Karate Kid with a hula hoop and a couple of weekends in the basement.

It was a chance for us, as a family, to be creative together. We made things with the express purpose of connecting to our community. As a family, we wanted to figure out how to scare or delight or amuse our friends and neighbors. My Halloween memories are some of the best memories I have because of those reasons.

I’m not one to be overly nostalgic about things, but because Halloween has such high sentimental value for me, every year it is more difficult for me to get interested in it anymore. Every time I see a pop-up Halloween shop my heart sinks.

For American children, the shortest distance to the sugar is in all of those stores.

Not all kids get store-bought costumes, but if someone will give me an apple for every Elsa you’re going to see walking around on October 31st, I will have an orchard. There will also be all of the other Disney Princesses and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Marvel Super Heroes. There will be Minions and Darth Vaders and maybe even a Crayola Crayon or two.

At Halloween, kids want to be what they have seen. So what they ask to be is a reasonable indicator of what we’re showing them, culturally.

Many girls will be in some kind of skirt with their faces showing and their hair done.  Their bodies will be displayed, rather than hidden. Boys will be in pants or a superhero body suit. Their faces will be covered by a mask, which makes them anonymous and hard to individuate.

Girls will be nice characters in bright or pastel colors until they make the transition into sexy costumes—a transition that seems to happen at an earlier age every year. Boys will be strong characters in primary colors and won’t ever make a transition to being a sexy anything.

Girls will be characters that are docile and service-oriented: nurses, waitresses, cheerleaders, storybook damsels. Boys will be characters that are action-oriented, often with an aspect of enforcement: military, ninjas, cops, firemen, racecar drivers.

Those costumes get worn because they can be bought, and when they are worn, they reinforce the kinds of stereotypes we take for granted every day of the year, not just on Halloween.

This is not at all to say there aren’t plenty of kids out there who are going to buck the trend and show up as something creative and homemade, but those pop-up shops don’t just pop up year after year because they aren’t making money. They keep coming back into every vacant storefront because they make Halloween easy—and in making it easy, they are taking out all the fun.

Halloween is now the first stop on the I-don’t-have-enough-time-to-do-it well holiday train that continues through New Year’s Day. It is an add-on to the stress of Thanksgiving and Christmas rather than the celebration of creativity it once was when I was growing up.

This sugar rush of life is creeping into more and more of our days. It is our true obsession. Halloween is just the latest victim.

Aimee Perkins is a Chicago writer and performer. She’s active in the live lit community and has graduated from Bath Spa University with an MA in Fiction Writing. She’s currently working on a novel about the financial crisis and blogs regularly at You can also find her on Twitter @aimee_perkins. 

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