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Halloween, better than any holiday, demonstrates how American children have been deprived of the freedoms of childhood as civilization "progresses." Radio interviews feature angry parents who won't be letting their children out to trick or treat because their neighborhoods have been so vandalized on previous Halloween nights. Wal-Marts and shopping mall kiosks stock up with candy and face masks in anticipation of trick-or-treaters who will stalk fluorescent lighted shopping aisles in search of treats.

Homeowners gear up for the big event -- putting out the jack-o-lantern, piling a huge bowl full of miniature candy bars, hanging a cardboard witch's face on the front door -- only to be disappointed by the small number of costumed kids that show up. A slight crew of pre-schoolers accompanied by their parents, appears just after dark, then a handful of others are scattered throughout the evening. The candy lasts until January.

The holiday is co-opted by 20- and 30-somethings who dress as hookers and fags and bitches and prostitutes, using the holiday as an excuse to get plastered on orange-tinted alcoholic beverages.

Forgive me if I sound bitter. I am, but only because I know that the youngest generation of American children may never have the chance to enjoy the holiday as it existed when I was a kid, or even when my children were very young.

Back then, Halloween was about getting scared. Now, we're scared all the time and Halloween is little more than an occasion to overindulge. Gone are the myths, the legends, the beguiling streets of the darkened neighborhood, the long night of walking the sidewalks with a gang of friends as scared as you. Now, sending your kids out to walk the streets at night feels like bad parenting.

Remember when you worked for weeks on your costume? When only really bad kids were the ones who smashed pumpkins? When you gathered your loot in a pillowcase and spent hours categorizing and organizing it on the kitchen floor after you returned home, frozen and exhausted? When you scouted out the one house in your neighborhood you were certain was haunted and dared to creep up to the front door, then ran with your friends, your screams piercing the dark night?

Here's the sad truth: If we hear a kid screaming now, our hearts lurch for fear he or she is in real danger. In this age of anxiety, if a firecracker goes off, we think it's a gun. None of us can allow ourselves the innocence or ignorance to think that a car might not go down the street spraying the sidewalks with gunshots as a Halloween prank.

The world we live in has become one big Halloween prank gone bad.

In our neighborhood, the last great vestige of Halloween was a family that turned their grand old house into a haunted house for the neighborhood kids every October. Everyone was welcome to traipse through the blood and brains and cobwebs and cow eyes, to get scared and walk away safe from this familiar place, decked out in scary splendor for that one special evening each year.

Ironically, that house is now part of a divorce dispute. The family that played Halloween pranks together is now split up, the house haunted by memories of all the little ghouls who passed through over the years.

My own youngest children are of the awkward age when they are too old to beg for candy, too big to carry out pranks without the sure scrutiny of the law, but still young enough to want there to be a Halloween -- a night of wandering and getting scared. Perhaps that is why I mourn the passing of Halloween, because I no longer have a little ghost or pirate or Batman to dress and send out, to caution not to eat too much chocolate, to tell spooky stories to in the dark.

One of the unspoken but well-known rituals of Halloween was always returning to a safe, warm house after a night outside of the context of safety. We stalked the streets and back yards and dark corners, then came home to a soft bed, a warm bath, a celebratory goodnight kiss. Our demons were quickly put behind us and stored away until next year.

This year, demons seem too close and too real to be put to rest. How does a mother kiss away the ghost of a gunman who shoots a woman in the face just for answering her doorbell? How soon will the ghost of the stalker who gunned down grocery shoppers in suburban Maryland just a few weeks back be put to rest? Will the bombing of Iraq soon replace the mythical demons of Halloween in our kids' dreams?

On Halloween, and every other day in America, our kids are held hostage to the pervasive violence of our society. And parents are captives of fear -- too afraid even to ask, "Trick or treat?"

-- kathryn@csindy.com

  • The world we live in has become one big Halloween prank gone bad.

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