Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween has always been a time of civic horror

     The low drumbeats of societal dread seem muted this Halloween. Oh, the Tribune scraped together a lengthy, usual-suspects story of panicky "hyperparents" forcing their children to trick-or-treat in church parking lots, to protect their precious ones from non-existent perils. 
     But beyond those freakish exceptions, the general hand-wringing seems fairly well confined to far left angst over sexy costumes for girls, a much more tolerable concern than worrying about your children being murdered by strangers.
     As with all holidays, Halloween is a time of nostalgia for many adults, who look around at the terrifying present, weigh their self-imposed anxieties for their kids, and then flee in their minds, back to an imagined better time.
     An editor did that 20 years ago. Chicago and neighboring suburbs were talking about banning or restricting Halloween—not much of an issue this year—and he asked me to take a look at the simple, wholesome pleasures of Halloweens past. What I found was that Halloween has always been a time of civic horror—mostly perceived, periodically all-too real—going back nearly a century. And the irony is, the halcyon past was far more brutal than the ooh-scary world of today. This story of mine originally ran in the Sun-Times Oct. 29, 1993 (I've cleaned it up in spots, to make it read more smoothly):

     Kids still may be frightened of goblins and ghosts at Halloween, but parents are scared of a menace even more threatening:
     The City of Chicago has compiled a list of 500 alternative Halloween events, to remove the need for children to go out in public collecting candy. The events are aimed at avoiding incidents of tainted candy, lurking strangers and accidents.
     "It's a changing world today," said Cynthia Sproul, of Lombard, explaining why her two daughters, ages 10 and 15, generally attend parties instead of trick-or-treating. "You have a lot more single-parent families, a lot more divorced families, a lot more children unsupervised."
     Sproul has a better reason than most to fear Halloween. Eight years ago she was chaperoning her daughters while they were trick-or-treating when her youngest daughter, Karen, then 2, was shot in the head by two boys playing with a BB gun.
     She was not permanently injured, but to this day her mother finds trick-or-treating "hard to condone."
     Dr. Robert Schleser, professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said: "We look for a time or a place that we imagined was what we really want—peace, security, community. But it's a fantasy."
     In fact, the idea of trick-or-treating as an innocent activity is hard to find in reality, at least in this century. Consider the following statement:
     "It is indeed a sad comment upon our times that an entire community has to fear for their children's safety during what should be a happy time."
     The statement was made in 1972 by Forest Park Mayor Howard R. Mohr at Halloween. In that year, parents and officials waged a virtual war against trick-or-treating, the result of widespread reports of candy tampering the year before, of Chicago area children supposedly finding razors, needles and ground glass in their treats. One boy was hospitalized with mescaline poisoning.
     As always, the suburbs were swiftest to react. Also in 1972, Elk Grove Village imposed fines of up to $200 for trick-or-treating beyond curfew, Oak Park passed a resolution asking parents to accompany children, and Lombard businesses distributed penny or nickel coupons for candy.
     Ten years earlier, city fathers also were trying to reduce trick-or-treating, which at that time went on for days. "There is growing agitation to keep the doorbell ringing down to just the one night, instead of spreading it out over the weekend," a news service reported in 1961.
     The 1950s were a time of chilling Halloween stories. The Friday before Halloween, 1954, readers of the Daily News woke up to a front-page headline that read: " 'Trick or Treat' Girl Found Slain" above a story about 6-year-old Karen Mauk, whose strangled nude body was found in a cemetery, her Halloween candy scattered about, her costume, a paper hat, nearby.
     In 1933, the entire uniformed Chicago Police Department was placed on the street for Halloween, but still trolley poles were ripped out, windows broken, streetcar tracks greased and fences set on fire.      
     The Oak Park Police arrested 300 boys who were on a window-breaking spree.
     In 1924, two Waukegan motorcycle policemen died after hitting a heavy log placed across Butrick Street. The collision hurtled the two into the path of a car.
      Only Halloweens near the turn of the century have taken on the image we all seem to miss, and that was reported long after the fact, a common pattern.
     "It was good clean fun," remembered Vincent Gadacz, in a reminiscence published 20 years ago of Chicago Halloweens. "We made sure no one was around a haystack or garbage pile we set on fire. We would have died if anyone had been hurt."


  1. I remember those fears about kids finding razor blades in apples and always wondered if they were factual or just urban myths -- parents had to sift through their kids' candy haul before letting them eat any of it.

  2. Heh. Local hospitals would X-ray your candy for free, back in the late 1960s. And we were warned to stay away from the house where the hippies lived -- you might end up with an acid-laced Laffy Taffy or something.

    There was/is some basis for the concerns, however:

  3. The past is never so great as some think.


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