COLUMN OF STAWAR: The Psychology of Trick-or-Treat | Opinion

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Halloween is approaching Sunday and my wife Diane has already bought two big bags of candy and is still worried that we won’t have enough.

In our old house, we never had any treats, but even after being in our current house for three years, we still don’t know what to expect. This year, more than 172 million Americans will celebrate Halloween, and they are expected to spend more than $ 10 billion on merchandise such as candy, decorations, costumes, and pumpkins.

Scholars believe that trick-or-treating may be rooted in ancient beliefs that restless spirits roamed the earth at this time of year and offering them treats would appease them. In Celtic countries, children visited affluent neighbors on the Day of the Dead and offered to pray for deceased family members, for food, drink, or money.

In Scotland and Ireland, children wore costumes and asked for treats in exchange for a “trick,” such as telling a joke, singing a song, or reciting a poem. Immigrants brought these customs to America where they merged into our modern custom of “cheating or dealing”.

Today, some people still demand representation in exchange for candy. As a child, I avoided these houses if possible. They weren’t just embarrassing, they took up too much precious time. I thought the phrase meant if you didn’t get a treat you were justified in pulling a trick, usually a minor act of vandalism, like soaping a window or bombing an egg house.

On Halloween in 1879, a Louisville Short Line train stopped screaming on its way through Newport, when the engineer spotted a body on the tracks. The “body” was a mannequin placed on the rails by dozens of delighted boys hiding along the rails. In rural areas, outhouses were knocked down by pranksters and so many doors were pulled off their hinges allowing livestock to escape, that Halloween was known as “Gate Night”.

Harry Sawyers, a Popular Mechanics writer, says that in 1894, bands of Halloween hooligans terrorized Washington, DC, recklessly throwing flour. The New York Times reported that “some streets looked like they had snowed in, and the pedestrian who returned home with his clothes unharmed considered himself lucky.”

Halloween pranks became so dangerous that in the 1920s many cities considered banning Halloween. The 1930s, however, saw a change in attitude, and community organizations began to hold Halloween parties, festivals, and costume contests to combat vandalism.

The town where I grew up had an annual Halloween costume contest at Jr. High School Gymnasium. Our family had an elaborate witch costume, which won first prize on several occasions. My mother’s surly mother-in-law, Busha, was the originator of the black dress and witch shoes that my mother, with no small degree of satisfaction, transformed into her award-winning costume.

There was no trick-or-treat during WWII, due to the rationing of sugar, which reduced the production of candy. It was reintroduced after the war and was featured in a famous 1951 Peanuts comic book.

Trick-or-treat has become part of the mainstream culture, but the evil has not completely disappeared. According to the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, Halloween has the highest number of everyday insurance claims of the year and property crimes are increasing by about 24%. North Carolina psychologist Mallory Roman wrote, “One of its most powerful draws is the normative acceptance of uninhibited behavior on Halloween. She says it gives people permission to express a “slightly darker version of themselves, to express hidden identities, and to indulge in desires they usually resist.”

In my childhood, minor Halloween vandalism was expected and tolerated. Making eggs in houses or cars, soaping windows, and hanging toilet paper on trees were quite common. Some people complained that the eggs were damaging to the paint on the car, but these “tips” were mostly harmless and were an integral part of teen dating and dating rituals. Aggressive and destructive acts like smashing windows, smashing pumpkins, and knocking over young children to get their candy were the exception.

My friend Dennis got in big trouble one Halloween for setting a paper bag of dog dung on fire on the porch of a pretty girl named Ruth. Dennis rang the doorbell and Ruth’s dad ran to the porch and put out the fire, which was Dennis’ desired outcome. Children in our class reported seeing Ruth on all fours rubbing the porch the next day. This did not lead Ruth to fall in love with the charming prankster, however.

A few years ago an 18-year-old in Pennsylvania was charged with arson and reckless endangerment for doing the exact same thing. He was held in the county jail after failing to post $ 20,000 bail. I guess Dennis was very lucky after all.

Princeton psychologist Tania Lombrozo thinks Halloween can tell us a lot of interesting things about ourselves, from what scares us to why we choose certain decorations and costumes. She says, “For kids, Halloween is an experience of delayed gratification and negotiation – which candy to eat now, which to redeem, which to keep.” She says, “In fact, there is a long tradition of using Halloween to shed light on human mind and behavior.” She describes how psychologists have used Halloween to better understand moral behavior, how children differentiate fantasy from reality, and even to assess children’s political preferences.

In the American Psychological Association’s database, there are 100 references to psychological studies related to Halloween. There aren’t any studies that explain acts of vandalism like Dennis’s, but several explain why trick-or-treaters might steal extra candy when given the chance. Such dishonest behavior was repeatedly associated with wearing masks, being in a group, excitement and a sense of anonymity.

For Halloween, safety and security experts recommend some basic guidelines to follow. These include: don’t leave your home unattended, keep your property well-lit, park cars in the garage, don’t leave your valuables in plain sight, and always blow out the pumpkin candle before you go. go to bed. You may also want to have a fire extinguisher handy for any flaming bag that suddenly appears on your porch, especially if you have a pretty girl.

Terry L. Stawar, ed. D. lives in Jeffersonville is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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