Halloween is unlike any event that we celebrate in Canada.
It’s a rather bizarre, but undeniably fun ritual that has become an important fall experience, but it’s also a day that has changed considerably over the past several decades.
Some say that those changes are a bit of a Rorschach test for society.
Let’s journey back through the years to test that hypothesis.
1950s and ‘60s
In the 1950s and 1960s, trick-or-treating really took off in North America. Kids dressed up and went door to door to demand treats. Sure, the holiday had existed in previous years, but it wasn’t until the ‘50s that it really took hold.
In those days costumes were either homemade, fashioned from old clothing and other items found around the home, or consisted of one of those cardboard masks with a rubber band to hold it in place.
Of course, by the end of the night many of those masks had collected enough moisture from the rapid breaths of happy children to become masses of colorful paper maché. Manufacturers saw the problem and moved to make plastic masks.
But then, just about everything in the ‘60s was made of plastic, so it made sense.
In those days, many parents didn’t accompany their children. This was, after all, the “come home when the streetlights come on” generation.
Halloween music started becoming popular in the 1960s as well when “Monster Mash” was released. Music had changed by then and Elvis, the Beatles, and others had changed the music scene and it was only natural that the trend bled into Halloween (pun intended).
That musical nod to Halloween has continued and we’re still bound to hear “Monster Mash” in the month to come. But it will be joined by more recent additions like “The Hanging Tree,” an off-shoot of the Hunger Games franchise.
1970s and 1980s
The social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s may have generated a less trusting society and the Tylenol murders of 1982 put parents into full panic mode as urban myths spread about razor blades in apples and poisoned Halloween treats. Halloween was cancelled in some communities and, elsewhere, apples and homemade treats were supplanted by prepackaged candy bars.
Jump to this year, Canadians will spend about a half-billion dollars on prepackaged Halloween treats, although we suspect that parents may consume a lot of those goodies well before Halloween.
Costumes had changed in the ’80s as well with more adult parties generating a market for prepackaged “sexy” nurse, teacher costumes for women making their debut. Halloween was becoming more liberated, as was society.
Meanwhile, the kids had started dressing as characters from popular culture. Star Wars was big and Alf, Pac-Man and others soon joined the fray.
1990s and 2000s
By this time, most parents had figured out that the razor blade stories were urban legends, but the fear had done its job. Kids were far more likely to stick close to home and more parents were inclined to tag along. They still checked the candy when they got home.
Alternative Halloween celebrations also started popping up at community halls, churches and shopping malls as society became ever more concerned about the possible dangers of allowing children to run around residential areas.
Costumes continued to follow pop culture as Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, and Harry Potter costumes took hold.
Even adults joined in and pre-made costumes from movies like Batman, Scream and Kill Bill became popular. The female versions of these costumes still tended to lean toward the salacious side and men increasingly found that they could buy fake muscle padding that was a lot easier than going to the gym.
2010 to today
OK, there have always been Halloween decorations, but the last 20 years have seen an explosion of sometimes very elaborate spooky decorations. It’s estimated that, this year, Canadians will spend more than $3.5 billion on decorations. It’s led to the production of Halloween house maps in Victoria in which folks will drive around the city to see the most frightening displays.
Malls and shopping districts have joined in and, elsewhere, pop-up Halloween-themed parks have become the norm.
And while the pandemic certainly put a damper on Halloween trick-or-treating, there has been a resurgence. Trend lines indicate that more than 65 per cent of homes will be giving out treats this year.
And while the razor-blades-in-apples threats have been debunked, a new fear has arisen as it’s been discovered that there are some idiots out there who think it would be fun to give out edible cannabis to children. In 2022, this prompted the BC government to release a statement on how to keep trick-or-treaters safe from cannabis.
On the lighter side, there’s been an explosion of folks opting to dress Fido and Fluffy in Halloween costumes as pets get in on the Halloween fun. This year, Canadians will spend a half billion dollars on pet costumes.
Humans will also keep dressing up with (you guessed it) superheroes continuing to be popular. Of course, given that half the movies these days feature stars wearing capes, that’s not a surprise.
What is surprising is that homemade costumes have made a resurgence, prompted largely by how-to videos on social media.
Public schools have also embraced Halloween again, after a spate of costume bans before 2000. In a statement by School Division 62 in Victoria, costumes are invited with a few limitations. No weapons, even fake ones, are permitted, full masks aren’t allowed and no scary clowns.
And in a true reflection of a period in which Canada has welcomed refugees from around the world, the YMCA has taken to providing new Canadians with a primer on what Halloween is all about.
So, despite the changes in Halloween over the years, it continues to be an important day. It’s that special time when we voluntarily ingest a seemingly unending selection of pumpkin-spiced food and drinks that, let’s face it, all taste like candles.
We dress in costumes that would make us blush any other time of the year and we encourage our children to go door to door to beg for treats.
Of course, it’s also a lot of fun and it’s generated some classic movie lines.
Our favourite comes from “The Addams Family” when Wednesday Addams says: “This is my costume. I’m a homicidal maniac. They look just like everyone else.”
On that note, have a safe and happy Halloween.