Why We Open Our Doors on Halloween (Even If We Can’t This Year)
Our Halloween traditions hearken back to rituals of dispelling threats through communal acts of giving and receiving.
A weeklong festival, Samhain was something like a combination of Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and Mardi Gras. Livestock were brought in from the fields and slaughtered, the last of the harvest was gathered in and stored away. Newly harvested grain was turned into alcohol, and all this abundance of food and drink shared in community-wide feasts. Samhain was a time to settle debts, hire new workers, and renegotiate terms with existing ones. Criminal and civil trials were held, sometimes followed by executions. It was a time to get right with your neighbors, before the deprivations of winter.
And then there were the ghosts. Samhain is what anthropologists call a “liminal holiday,” as it sits at the threshold between summer and winter, light and dark. The ancient Celts believed that on the night of October 31, the door between this world and the next cracked open. The spirits of the dead, guided by the blazing bonfires, returned to their former homes for peace and comfort. The Celts left out food and wine for them, and prayed for their protection. It was a night for divination, when well-fed spirits might let you in on the secrets of the other side.
It was a frightening night, too. Winter was long and difficult, and there was no guarantee you would make it to the other side. The ancient Celts believed the world was filled with dangerous forces, witches and aos sí(usually translated as fairies). You needed your ancestors, called home across a dark chasm by firelight and a bit of bread and milk at the door; you needed the neighbors who gathered your grain; you needed the sun you sent to bed at the bottom of the sky; and all of them—the neighbors, the dead, the wild world—needed you, too.
The arrival of Catholicism in Great Britain didn’t change the fundamental preoccupations of Samhain (now Hallowtide); the old pagan practice of bonfires led naturally to bonfires at Hallowtide, the lights to ward off evil spirits. Farmers still circled their fields with a flaming torch to protect and purify their crops. Children still went door to door for firewood. On October 31, church bells would ring all night, and candlelit processions through graveyards assured the dead: We remember you.
Comfortable households would bake small round “soul cakes,” which were distributed to the poor in exchange for their promise to pray for the souls of the dead (according to some traditions, for each cake that was eaten, one soul would be released from Purgatory). Soulers went door to door with candles and lanterns made from hollowed-out turnips—sometimes playing musical instruments, sometimes in costume—to repay the household’s generosity with a performance of music, dancing, skits, or jokes. A stingy householder would be subject to mockery, curses, and destructive pranks.
Like Samhain, Hallowtide knit together the living members of a community, rich and poor, with their dead in a relationship of mutual dependence. Households that distributed cakes pledged their support to the poor; in exchange, soulers pledged their support to the community of the dead in Purgatory and the living who mourned them. Souling was a ritual of kindness, a community act predicated on an underlying threat. You light fires to charm the sun, you bake cakes to settle the dead. When someone knocks, you open the door.
On May 1, our family moved into a slightly decrepit 120-year-old house that looked perfectly haunted. The first night, neighbors started coming over to welcome us. My husband Zac and I sat out on our front porch, fifty feet from the sidewalk. The girls who live two houses up rode by on their scooters, taking it all in: two adults, four new neighborhood kids, a dog and a cat—as well as a disassembled bunk bed, two pallets of Halloween decorations, and a homemade fortune-telling machine. Their dad came over to introduce himself.
“We can’t shake hands,” he laughed, striding across our lawn, “so we’ll have to do a fist bump.” (What could I do? I fist-bumped.)
I fantasized about throwing open our front door, finally, gladly, welcoming everyone I had closed it to before.
A family from across the street stopped by, too, and then another. Every evening, someone else would visit. Our next-door neighbors, both medical professionals in their seventies, brought us homemade muffins. They baby-sit their five-year-old granddaughter every afternoon, and offered to watch our kids sometime, too. It was wonderfully kind and also disorienting. We were invited to birthdays and barbecues.
I wanted to go to all of it; I wanted to bring a dish to the Sunday barbecue; I wanted to send the kids next door to play on the rented inflatable water slide. Instead I stammered, “Oh, we would, we’d love to, but you know—when this is all over.”
The longer we spent apart from our new neighbors, the larger Halloween loomed in my mind as a chance to prove to everyone I wasn’t standoffish. After each unsatisfying interaction with a neighbor, I told myself, just wait for Halloween. We’ll pull out the fog machine and lights and sound effects, with full-size candy bars for all the kids and maybe something for the parents, too.
Here we were in a crumbling old house with a rickety front porch and a wide, weedy lawn shadowed by brooding trees—it was the most perfect Halloween set-up imaginable. In June, we planted a pumpkin patch on the front lawn so we could grow and give away the pumpkins to neighborhood kids. I fantasized about throwing open our front door, finally, gladly, light spilling down the steps, welcoming everyone I had closed my door to before.
In the United States, Halloween pranks escalated during the Great Depression. Benign pranks of the past—switching shop signs, or flinging a sock filled with flour at a man’s black coat—were exchanged for breaking windows, disabling street cars, and setting fires. American youth sawed down telephone poles, overturned cars, and left fire hydrants to flood city streets, partly in response to material deprivation and social upheaval.
In 1925, Chicago public schools instituted a “pledge respect for all citizens” that was rather pointedly invoked in response to Halloween pranks. Local governments, civic organizations like the YMCA, the Rotary Club, and the Boy Scouts, and small business associations tried to combat the wave of destruction by hosting Halloween parties in a move reminiscent of today’s school- and church-sponsored after-prom parties. In an early example of corporations co-opting the holiday, store owners sponsored holiday window decoration contests to deflect having those windows smashed on Halloween night.
While teachers and civic organizations tried to prevent teenage pranks, neighbors came together to create “house-to-house parties” during which groups of children were led from one house to the next, each house providing a different game, activity, or treat. This evolved into our modern practice of trick-or-treating. For older kids, the candy “bribe” evolved from a genuine one (take this candy, and please don’t set fire to my house) to a more perfunctory exchange.
But it wasn’t until after World War II that trick or treating truly came into its own—no longer constrained by the Depression-era need to share the cost of hosting, homeowners indulged in trick-or-treating as a celebration of postwar plenty, buying up mass-produced, store-bought costumes and handing out large quantities of once-rationed candy to strangers.
What of our animatronic zombies and our front-yard graveyards this year? Are they fun or merely tasteless?
What was missing in all this was the dead. They lingered, of course, as plastic skeletons in suburban front yards, and in the costumes of little trick-or-treating ghosts. But our dead, the ones who found their way home over the firelit barrows, who lingered in Purgatory as we walked candles through graveyards, who whispered their secrets on Halloween night, had been displaced.
Celebrations like Dia de los Muertos and All Souls’ Day help many throughout the world keep this time of year in remembrance of the dead. At the same time, as commercial American Halloween was untethered from the remembrance of our shared dead, it grew bigger and bloodier, with amateur home haunts and then professional amusement parks competing for ever more spectacular and gruesome displays. Without the obligations of generosity or community, or the fear of reprisal, trick-or-treating was voluntary. The dead didn’t need us—we certainly didn’t need them—and the living didn’t, either.
Where we live, summer dragged on, stifled with record-breaking heat waves and wildfire smoke until no one went outside at all. School resumed with long days in front of the computer. Our neighborhood, which had been filled with the sound of fireworks and music, is now all but silent, and we have no more social invitations to regretfully turn down.
In September, Los Angeles County officially recommended canceling trick-or-treating, and our city of Pasadena followed in early October. It didn’t feel right to set up an elaborate Halloween scene on our front lawn to tempt kids whose parents might not want them to visit. We left the fake tombstones and skeletons in the basement and set a few grocery store pumpkins out on the porch. I thought about putting up a sign at the end of the driveway: “Come back next Halloween—it will be great, we promise.”
On Halloween Forum, between posts titled “Crows/Ravens I need LOTS of them” and “Fog Distribution – Does Tubing Size Matter,” there’s an entire thread on “touchless candy delivery systems.” Haunters are planning to rig up animatronic arms, pulley systems, air cannons, conveyor belts, plexiglass partitions, and modified vending machines. CBC News reports that a couple in Calgary created a “shrink wrap plastic film as a barrier for doorways, allowing an easy way to give out candy without getting too close.”
On reddit’s r/Halloween, a dad from Michigan went viral with his zipline candy system that also delivers parents cans of beer. The Halloween blogger Senor Scary is rigging up a sort of clothesline, with full-sized candy bars suspended by painted orange pins. (He adds, “And yes, I’ll be prepared if kids take more than one—because that’s the Halloween spirit.”) Some people are planning to toss candy from their second-story windows like a stalled Mardi Gras float. My own haunters’ group, Southern California Valley Haunters (SCVH), is enamored with the idea of PVC-pipe candy chutes. Many haunters are exchanging their walk-through mazes for drive-by front yard displays.
Of course, not every haunter is concerned with infecting or offending their neighbors. Some think the fears around Covid-19 are overblown; more are simply loath to give up or adapt their favorite holiday. For some, death is what the holiday is about, and toning it down seems disingenuous. “It is Halloween and there are lots of deaths every year,” began one poster from Virginia. Another said, with some bravado, “The whole reason I got into Halloween was the ability to look death in the face and find a way to laugh,” adding “this year is really no different than any other year.” Spirit Halloween, never one to fret over good taste, is heavily promoting its “Plague Doctor” line; an Instagram ad featured a smiling family of seven decked out in two Plague Doctor costumes, a pair of Hazmat suits, and three sets of doctor’s scrubs.
Halloween is about the recognition of our collective dependence—the vulnerability and terror that comes from needing other people, in this life and the next.
What of our animatronic zombies and our front-yard graveyards this year? Are they fun, rebellious, or merely tasteless? Is it still trick-or-treating if the candy comes barreling down a PVC pipe?
We can dispense with candy, costumes, and plastic skeletons this year and know that Halloween traditions will survive. But the true meaning of Halloween is not in the “celebration” of death, but the recognition of our collective dependence—the vulnerability and terror that comes from needing other people, needing community, in this life and the next. Perhaps this is a different, deeper kind of generosity, one founded not on inconstant benevolence, but on the steady recognition of mutual need.
With no trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, I was left with a mental roster of every kid I had hoped to see at my front door. I unpacked my stash of Halloween odds and ends, the little toys and stickers and gift bags I give away every year at the school Halloween carnival. I made gift bags and left them at every front door with a note—a little apologetic, a little awkward—wishing the kids a happy Halloween.
Halloween traditions like trick-or-treating take place on the literal threshold between the familiar and the strange, inside and outside, us and them. Even if many are ignorant of the real meaning of the phrase “trick or treat,” what we do in our neighborhoods and at our doorsteps hearkens back to rituals of dispelling threats through acts of communal giving and receiving. Over time, our front doors have become places where we engage with others in interactions that are often rushed or thoughtless. On Halloween, we bravely, kindly, open the door.