THE BLOG
10/29/2014 11:04 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Halloween Can Save American Democracy

Eri Morita via Getty Images

Halloween is the great American holiday. Unlike Thanksgiving or even Independence Day, it is brutally honest about our nation. It is the unapologetic celebration of rebellion, community, excess, silliness, horror, violence, pranks, fandom, freedom, gluttony, consumerism and our 77 other deadly sins. Like so many European-American celebrations, Halloween, whose stateside origins trace back to the Great Potato Famine, made its slow way through our culture's moonshine still eventually to become a head-spinning national intoxicant. Like Dutch Pentecost, which evolved in the early nineteenth century into the intensely frolicsome African-American Pinkster; like French Mardi Gras, which changed on contact with boisterous and creolized New Orleans; Halloween entered the American bloodstream and soon became secular public property. Now there's nothing European about it. For all its edginess, Halloween is tons of fun and altogether pretty harmless. But like so much of the best American fun, its delicate vitality is seriously threatened by Puritanism, commercialism and a fear of ourselves.

Halloween treats kids to the best of American life. Noisy, unbridled, imaginative, comical, the roving social mixer of "Trick or Treat" is most Americans' first (or only) experience with radical democracy. High creativity is its point of departure. For weeks in advance, kids raid thrift stores, lovingly cut costumes from cardboard and felt and even team up with obliging parents to masquerade as their most flagrant or forbidden selves. (In both fifth and sixth grades, my good Catholic mother meticulously applied my sinister Gene Simmons face paint.) The selection of costumes, whether homemade or store-bought, is a powerful exercise in identity-formation.

"What are you going to be for Halloween?" It's an exciting question because it reveals so much. Every kid understands the ironic honesty of costumes, which has a lot in common with active citizenship: that they can liberate themselves by hiding in plain view and acting as the folk heroes, animals or monsters that privately intrigue them most. Halloween is the craftiest American holiday, and costumes are just the beginning. Carving pumpkins, making decorations and (a staple of my Midwestern childhood) designing genuinely scary "haunted houses" for the delectation of friends and neighbors, all of this hands-on, do-it-yourself activity puts kids in charge of the holiday, which is precisely why it's so much fun.

Democracy hits the streets on the night itself, when flamboyant young citizens meet up after dark and strike out onto unfamiliar streets, shouting rude greetings, enjoying the hospitality of fellow strangers, sometimes smashing a pumpkin or two. The ritual isn't pretty, but its dangers are illusory. On Halloween, kids learn that strangers are fun, despite the thrilling urban legends of poison candy, razor in apples and roaming kidnappers in white Econoline vans. Ideally, they become bold young explorers of their neighborhoods' uncharted public space. At our home here in Annapolis, Maryland, on a few city blocks that border both lower-income housing projects and million-dollar waterfront properties, Halloween is the one day of the year when kids and families from our town's full economic spectrum have fun together in the streets. In the spirit of participatory democracy, the Halloween vibe is neither cold nor formal, but a festive donnybrook up and down the sidewalks. Which is to stay, it follows the kids' lead and shows us grownups, also mixing and mingling in the dark, our town's potential for radical civility.

And Halloween isn't just for kids. In childhood we're only initiated into its mysteries. From coast to coast, it's a sanctioned opportunity for citizens of all ages to go with their bad selves -- at private parties, street parties, even (for the boldest) in the workplace. As any adult who has dressed up for Halloween knows, the risky thrill doesn't dwindle with age. It heightens. "What are going to be for Halloween?" becomes "Are you going to dress up?" Could you be so frivolous? Reveal so much? For those of us who have dressed up, even if we're the only freaks in the room, that familiar ironic honesty is right where we left it, tempting us to be outrageous and free. Some American cities maximize this pleasure. I vividly recall the diabolical joy in San Francisco's Castro of sporting horns and flame-red face and body paint and joining the thousands of unworried grownups who unleashed themselves with utter lavishness. I also recall a Halloween in New York's East Village, when my future wife and I -- dressed, respectively, as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf -- elicited wolf-whistles and good-natured catcalls up and down Avenue B. Taking such risks pays your admission into the liveliest of civil society. It reminds even the wariest of bystanders that they, too, could run free.

Still, it's easy to be cynical about it all. Halloween superstores pop up in August and start urging us to advertise that year's blockbusters -- urging girls to be Elsa from Frozen, urging boys to be their favorite repackaged Ninja Turtle, as if our identities begin and end with Hollywood. Come September, supermarket aisles overflow with "fun-size" candy, reminding shoppers that it's our duty as consumers to participate in Trick or Treat. It's all kind of sickening. But such schlock is also totally American, if not necessarily in the proudest sense. In the dreary old tradition of blackface minstrelsy, or of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, the purest kinds of American fun have always fallen prey to crass commercial forces, and when that happens they lose their luster, lose their soul. We don't need Charlie Brown to tell us that -- or do we? Has it gotten to where we can't tell the difference between fun we make and fun we buy? Or much worse, do we not care?

I was living in France in the late 1990s, when, thanks to the outreach of Coca-Cola and McDonalds, Halloween started making its strange appearance. Intrigued by this latest wave of cultural imperialism, some French people seemed willing to try it out. Some wore flashing jack-o-lantern buttons. Some even put on half-hearted costumes and wandered about in search of a reason. In the absence of an edgy folk tradition, however, in the absence of childhood inculcation into the mysteries of Trick or Treat, this globalized Halloween looked spookily hollow. This European holiday didn't belong in Europe. I remember wishing it would go away.

Now I worry that Halloween, as we know it, might go away. Trick or Treat is dwindling in many neighborhoods, often abandoned for ostensibly safer private parties. Horror itself has been so played out (from Twilight to the unending zombie apocalypse) that it is losing, well, its horror. By the same token, as many Americans retreat deeper into gated communities and deeper into their HD TVs, their instincts and talents for basic civility are falling into serious disrepair. Cut to viral video images of thousands of drunk college kids upending cars and uprooting street signs at Keene, New Hampshire's "Pumpkin Fest," an outsize American pumpkin-carving carnival that became a pumpkin-smashing orgy gone terribly wrong. What these lit-up hell-raisers appear to have been missing were the self-regulating skills that let Halloween be mischievous, even wildly fun, without descending into stupid, thyroidal destruction: the skills that let Halloween be radically democratic without turning violently anarchic.

The noisy old practice of Halloween -- on the streets, among neighbors and strangers -- is where those skills can be learned and nurtured. We can't fix Congress, where the noble practice of good-spirited tousling has fallen to bitter stonewalling. We can't stop Super PACS from bullying the public sphere and masquerading as citizens. But we can fan the flame of democracy among real citizens, and teach our kids to fan it too. Democracy doesn't require partisanship. It requires that you act as your truest, boldest self and risk mixing it up with other bold folks. Halloween requires the same. When we encourage our kids to think for themselves and to revel in their most audacious self-images -- and then give them enough leash to act for themselves - we show them American freedom at its finest.