Americans are really into Halloween. For weeks now, stoops, window sills and shop fronts here in New York have been decorated with cob-web, red and orange lights, ghost figures and jack-o-lanterns. Adults and children alike are busy planning their outfits for the annual parades, costume parties and trick-or-treating on October 31.
The medieval roots of the door-to-door candy-collection tradition have all but been forgotten. These days Halloween is just an excuse to dress up as zombies, witches, vampires and other scary figures and to have a silly, cosy and fun time. But some are apparently taking the mischievous tradition of scaring the bejesus out of one another a tad too seriously.
ABC News warns that 'while this is a time for little ones to have fun, parents shouldn't let the kids' enthusiasm drown out common sense. There are many hazards associated with Halloween.' Face paint can trigger allergies, costumes can get caught in car doors or catch fire, masks can slip over the eyes, young children can choke on treats, cut their fingers off while carving pumpkins or be kidnapped by strangers.
In America, Halloween is apparently a highlight not just for candy-crazy, fun-loving kids, but also for every health-and-safety-obsessed organisation in the nation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise parents to ensure their children go trick-or-treating in groups or with a trusted adult, that they carry flashlights and that they walk, not run, between houses. Adults should limit the amount of treats kids eat and check them for choking hazards before the kids start gorging them. Kids should only be allowed factory-wrapped candies and should avoid eating homemade treats made by strangers. Their costumes should be flame-resistant and, to be on the even safer side, kids should not walk near lit candles.
The National Fire Protection Association says each house should have two clearly marked exits in case of an emergency. Battery-powered or electric candles are preferable, but if you do insist on lighting candles, they should be kept at least one foot away from decorations.
The American Academy of Pediatrics believes small children should never carve pumpkins. 'Children can draw a face with markers. Then parents can do the cutting.' Trick-or-treaters should stay on well-lit streets and always use the sidewalk. If no sidewalk is available, they should 'walk at the far edge of the roadway facing traffic'.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology warns of the hidden dangers of buying decorative contact lenses without a prescription. There is apparently no such thing as a 'one size fits all' contact lens. 'Lenses that are not properly fitted may scratch the eye or cause blood vessels to grow into the cornea.'
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says 'partygoers and partythrowers' should avoid juice that hasn't been pasteurised or otherwise processed. Before bobbing apples, a traditional Halloween game, thoroughly rinse the apples under cool, running water to reduce the amount of bacteria that might be on them. 'As an added precaution, use a produce brush to remove surface dirt.'
The American Red Cross has published 13 (nearly) rhyming tips for a safe Halloween. For example, 'If you visit a house where a stranger resides, accept treats at the door and, please, don't go inside.'
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission offers this helpful image as guidance for proper costume wear.
The Halloween safety tips lists go on, but you probably get the drift.
Why are these organisations so scared of Halloween? Or, rather, why are they so scared of letting parents use their common sense, of allowing people just to let loose and to have some respite from the worries, rule-making and diet-watching that are already part of their and their children's everyday life? Whenever the public sees an opportunity to relax and have fun, health-and-safety obsessives see an opportunity to scare them back into submission. It's not necessarily sinister, though, it's just their creepy, intuitive reaction to stop people from experiencing fun overload.
Sure, all these dangers are a possibility -- decorations can catch fire, apples could be covered in bacteria and masks may temporarily obscure kids' vision. But pointing out the obvious, over and over, and exaggerating the risks behind these things won't make people feel safer. It just helps turn what is a harmless holiday into a nightmarish, control-freakish night of health-and-safety horror.