Grownups in Costumes: Have Adults Ruined Halloween?

Grownups have inserted themselves into the one time of year when, traditionally, children could escape adult authority

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American adults now spend significantly more money on their own Halloween costumes than on their children’s. In fact, this year’s holiday is projected to ring up a recession-proof $8 billion in spending, only 13% of which ($1.1 billion) actually goes to kids’ costumes, compared with the 17.5% ($1.4 billion) adults spend on their own Dracula capes and French-maid getups, in addition to the food, alcohol and holiday decor. And let’s not leave the family dog out of the festivities: we spent $370 million on pet costumes in 2011.

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There’s nothing wrong with adults having a good time, needless to say. But you have to wonder why they have co-opted this children’s holiday to such a startling degree and whether they are taking away some of Halloween’s magic in the process.

Adult Halloween celebrations are well established, with roots in San Francisco’s gay community in the 1970s. Young heterosexuals without children quickly followed, and today the biggest Halloween spenders turn out to be men from the ages of 18 to 34. But it’s not only adult revelers who are edging kids out of the festivities. Overly vigilant parents have played a part too.

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Many communities have gutted trick-or-treating in favor of trunk-or-treating parties, in which kids move around parking lots, grabbing candy out of the cars of parents dressed as Professors McGonagall and Snape. The traditional going-door-to-door experience has been sanitized, conducted in near daylight with curfews, dwindling numbers of children and smothering adult supervision. Even the Halloween candy seems micromanaged by meddling adult hands: the influx of miniature candy bars and yogurt snacks seems a mean-spirited rebuke to a nation’s children whose health problems are surely linked less to Halloween than to the other 364 days of the year.

Controlling the Halloween environment is meant to keep children safe, of course, but most of our fears are unfounded. There hasn’t been a single documented case of Halloween candy poisoning. Ever. Sexual-predation rates are no different on Halloween than any other night of the year. The one thing we should be worrying about is keeping cars off the roads where children are trick-or-treating, and there are straightforward solutions to that problem.

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Some parents cherish family time on Halloween, of course. But we pay a steep price — and not only a financial one — when we insert ourselves into the one time of year when, traditionally, children could escape the long reach of parental authority without serious consequences.

When parents exert a lighter touch on Halloween, kids can learn a lot of important lessons: how to look after younger children, how to make a special costume out of almost nothing, how to greet strangers with confidence, how to test their own internal limits. Do they cross the line and egg the neighbor’s house? Shout rude things at the person who gives out apples? Even the freedom to choose when and how to eat one’s stash of sugar teaches consequences (like stomachaches) and discipline. But above all, a child-centered Halloween helps cultivate a child’s imagination, unfiltered by adult eyes and wallets, through the time-tested pleasure of make-believe.

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By stage-directing details that generations of kids managed just fine on their own, today’s parents communicate the message that fun requires large amounts of money and adult input to be meaningful. Really, who wants their child to reach that conclusion?