Tricks and Treats: On Fear, Bravery, and Halloween

When I was a kid, we lived down the street from our local pastor. Despite some of his congregation’s hesitations about the holiday, he absolutely loved Halloween.

I don’t remember how he decorated his house or if he ever wore costumes. I don’t remember what kind of candy he passed out. I remember two things about Pastor John’s house on Halloween night: he always looked delighted to see us, and he always made us do a trick before we could get a treat.

Apparently, this is a custom in certain areas but it wasn’t a custom in ours. As far as we knew, it was just Pastor John.

At first, the idea of performing on his front doorstep was terrifying. Should I tell a joke or sing a song? What if I wasn’t good enough? What if he gave me a rock instead of candy like those horrible adults in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown?

But I did it. I was brave.

To me, bravery is what Halloween is all about.

You go out in the dark. After a certain age, you do it alone*. You might or might not believe in ghosts but you certainly believe in big kids who might decide to steal your candy. You know the decorations are foam and plastic–or are they? Sometimes they move and frighten you. Sometimes the neighbor down the street sits on his front porch dressed as a mummy while his wife gives you candy, then as you’re leaving he reaches out and grabs your hand.

In my town (which was tiny, remote, and in many ways totally anachronistic) there was a house at the bottom of a hill called Jungle Town Lane, where the only lights glowed from Jack-O-Lanterns and the road got slick with dew. If you made it all the way there, down the hill and the long walkway, past the spiderwebs and scarecrows–if you didn’t run when one of the scarecrows stood up and lunged at you–you came back with a king-size candy bar.

Of course, this was a small town. If I remember correctly, that scarecrow was actually the school bus driver or the school janitor–possibly both. Not that I ever rode the school bus except on field trips. The bus was for kids coming from two neighboring towns, whose students brought our school’s numbers to about 120 children, preschool through eighth grade. In my town, cougars and bears presented more danger than any of the neighbors, every one of whom our parents knew by name.

Later, when we lived in the San Diego suburbs, we went door to door with our friends, sometimes even entering garages that had been set up like a laboratory or a haunted house. Our hearts thumped in our chests as we tried to figure out what would jump out at us and when–but for the most part we knew that the scarier houses gave out the best candy.

But even the tamest Halloweens present their own frights, especially when you’re younger.

At one point, my son was frightened of even the friendliest jack-o-lantern. When he was two or three we offered to take him trick-or-treating but he refused year after year because he was afraid: of skeletons, of ghosts, of walking up to someone’s door. When he finally went out for the first time it was because his sister wanted to, and because we promised to go out before it got dark. Our neighbors were a bit baffled to get trick-or-treaters at 5pm and many weren’t even home from work, but that was okay by him. He started out timid–afraid even to walk up to the door–but by the time the sun set, both my kids were ringing doorbells so fast we could hardly keep up with them.

At one house, when the kids had gotten brave enough to demand we stay on the sidewalk while they rang the bell, a neighbor in a skull mask opened the door at a slow creak, his mask glowing against the dark room behind him. After what felt like a whole minute, the door finally opened and my kids, scared as they were, managed to say “trick or treat” and were given a handful of goodies.

When they got back to me, they were beaming. They had never done something so scary. They had never been so brave.

As a mother, Halloween tests me too. When the skull mask man opened his door so slowly, I could see my children starting to lose their nerve and I wanted to rush up and tell them it was okay. I wanted to defuse the moment, absorb their fear. It took all my restraint just to stay where I was.

As a mother, it is far too tempting to shield my kids from fear and uncertainty–theirs and my own. It is far too tempting to rush them past the scarier houses and tut the people who go gory. It is far too tempting to skip trick-or-treating all together and take them to the mall or a fall festival, where the scariest thing will be a plastic skeleton wearing a hat.

I don’t know when things like “trunk or treat” were invented, but if they existed when I was a kid I certainly didn’t know about them. I’m sure I’d have loved to get a bagful of candy for the mere price of showing up in costume–but then, it might have been a bit boring. I’ve taken my kids to a few tame Halloween events, though never on the night itself, and I always feel like whatever candy they receive is ill-earned. They’re happy to have it, but it isn’t the same. There’s no thrill, no adrenaline. Often, they don’t even have to say “trick or treat.”

Ultimately, I don’t want Halloween to be all about candy. I am squeamish about guts and gore, and I’ll never be a fan of horror movies, but smiling pumpkins and Reese’s cups simply aren’t enough. Strange as it might sound, I want my children to get scared–because if they never know fear, they’ll never learn how to get past it.

Our children now ride in car seats for years, then booster seats, and they’re not allowed in the front seat till they’re basically teens. They play on playground equipment with rounded corners and soft surfaces. I’m not quibbling here–I don’t want my kids to get hurt. It’s tempting to pad out every part of their lives to keep them safe, but the fact is, kids need to take risks. They need to feel fear. They need to learn problem-solving, and not just in math class.

This year, my son wants to make a trick-or-treat map, making note of the houses that have inflatable decorations. He wants to skip these houses because he deems them too scary. We’ll make the map if he wants to and I won’t force anything, but we will certainly walk past these houses and face the inflatables. When we walk away, they will stay where they are. We’ll do this every year and one day, he’ll get brave enough to walk up those driveways and ring those doorbells to get his treats. On that day, he will get to feel proud.

*By which I mean unsupervised by adults–you’re never alone on Halloween. Though, perhaps kids don’t do that anymore. Perhaps by the time it’s legal to let them run free, they’ve outgrown the tradition.

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