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What Halloween does for kids

Editor's note: This commentary originally ran in Fox News Opinion on October 31, 2011.

The seemingly endless wait for dark is one part of Halloween that has stayed vividly with me since childhood. Although our parents preferred we set out earlier, my older sister and I knew that walking house-to-house would be no good at dusk--there was nothing forbidden or dangerous in it. And so we would glance again and again at the sun, an intrusive guest over-staying his welcome.

Finally, when the neighborhood was puddles of streetlight, we would pull on our costumes and become monsters of one kind or another, rapidly growing too warm for the house, with a light sweat already under nylon gowns and rubberized masks.

We took turns sneaking into each other's room to scare and be scared. I enjoyed poking her with a plastic pitchfork and showing her gruesome wounds I had made with vampire blood from a tube. She would scream, laugh and inspect my injuries with real interest. Then, holding hands, we would venture together into the comfort of the night air.

Halloween is a kind way for children to confront, in fantasy, real doubts and fears we all share. It creates a waking dreamland in which the dark is populated with nothing worse than cartoon-like characters, death is a costume party with free candy, and horrible beings are just the-kids-up-the-street in disguise.

There was wonderful anxiety in those first steps off our flagstone walk. I was young enough to intermittently suspend disbelief and anticipate demons behind each tree. I could hear far-off disembodied footsteps and mischievous laughter. But I was dangerous, too, and this put me on par with boogieman. I was, to other devils, a kindred soul. I could walk through my nightmares with impunity.

Tests of courage waited at every turn: approaching a house without a lamp, leaving our cluster of six houses for the relative unknown a hundred yards away, talking to costumed witches and man-eating beasts and ghosts who initially refused to reveal their true identities. We would find them out by glancing at their sneakers or watches or loose wisps of hair. Some carried the same drawstring bags that usually held their books. If it was very cold, their coats gave them away instantly. It was a neighborhood-wide game of peekaboo, with friends good enough to cover themselves and play the terrifying products of our imaginations.

What joy it was to spot the evidence that uncloaked my next-door neighbor David. If he so much as grinned, I knew him; there was a gaping space between his square front teeth. He was shorter than I was and he had fought off the bullies who picked on me more than once. Even on this hellish night, full of sham death, I had a seemingly invincible ally.

On Halloween, little people are empowered to threaten bigger people with tricks and always come away with the goods. It is one of the precious times when children seem conscious of the advantages of childhood. "Too big" means you stay home and give away candy, instead of going out and filling a bag full. There is even a gradual rite of passage to young adulthood. For a few intermediate years, trick-or-treating with just a trace of costume, perhaps as an escort for the real children, is still within the limits of decorum.

And, for once, kids are just kids. Unlike having a tree on Christmas or Menorah on Chanukah, most everyone tricks or treats. The only obvious difference between people is between parents--nice ones give miniature boxes of Good and Plenty candy or little chocolate Hershey's bars, and less nice ones give out single sour fruit balls. My sister and I tried to save my mother from the sugar insensitivity of adulthood by tossing the right stuff in her grocery cart.

Neighbors who consistently abandoned their houses on Halloween risked permanent reputations. We fantasized life stories that would explain their meanspiritedness. There were rumors on my street that one woman was unable to bear children and that another’s had run away.

Hints of actual danger reached us, but these seemed vague, like parts of the fantasy. My parents inspected our booty and made us throw away any unwrapped candy. We weren't to eat or drink anything en route. We were never to set foot inside a stranger's house. We heard of real monsters -- adults who put drugs in cider or cookies. To this day, I still wince at the panic it must be to bite into a razor blade concealed in an apple.

For me, the safety net started to fray when I was caught one Halloween by a group of grade-school enemies. They circled me on wheelie bikes, yelling slurs. I looked for David, but there were no pirates anywhere. I was alone. I was pushed here and there, then felt something break on my head as the boys finally sped away. I ran home crying, with egg streaming down my face and clothes.

I still remember feeling relieved when my mother, who I feared I had failed with my tears, smiled and told me that people paid good money for egg shampoos.

Reality, however, was not to be denied it's due. Not long after the night, a real boogieman visited our neighborhood. My sister and I knew from the pall that had descended on our enclave of six houses that something was very wrong.

We watched from a window as my father walked deliberately across the yard and into David's house next door. When he came back, he looked at my mother and whispered, "It isn't good." Then she started to cry.

David had a cancerous tumor growing in the bone in his leg. It meant he might die. It also meant that we might not be able to build the two-story clubhouse we had planned. The two threats were inextricably mixed in my young mind. Yet they were real, and they were palpable, and it really worried me that no one laughed at them.

I wasn't ready to confront the reality of death. As it turned out, my friend saved me, again. David lost his hair and couldn't eat from the battle, but he wrestled that cancer to the ground and survived. He let me believe years longer that death was an illusion, a weakling dressed to scare. To this day, I believe I hold his victory as a secret trump card, a little edge against all the horrors I now know are too real.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at info@keithablow.com.