Let the Ghoul Times Roll: Halloween Culturally Significant Despite Social-Distancing Norms, Says Researcher

By Tom McLaughlin

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, social-distancing norms continue to affect every facet of American life.

Halloween rituals will be no different, says Cindy Dell Clark, but don’t expect kids to be stuck holding the bag.

Regardless of the slew of new challenges this year, the holiday still holds significant cultural meaning to Americans, explains the Rutgers University–Camden researcher, meaning that, more than likely, old traditions will simply wear new disguises.

“I don’t expect families in 2020 to forego Halloween altogether, but rather adjust their doings,” says the professor of anthropology. “There will be online Halloween parades, among other adaptations. There will be more doctors and nurses – maybe even Dr. Fauci masks – among the heroic masquerade.”

While she doesn’t have a crystal ball, Clark draws on the fieldwork she did on Halloween rituals in the midst of the anthrax scare in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. She found that, for children, trick-or-treating has great significance as a “classic role-inversion ritual” – a temporary rise to power and a chance to invert the usual power structure.

“Kids get to dress like adults, to interact with strangers, and to collect lots of candy,” she says. “All of these give kids a sense of power, albeit temporary.”

Of course, she says, there is also something in it for adults: a once-a-year chance to flout death and act out norm-defiance.

“There are a lot of pent-up fears about death during this year of the pandemic – and some adults will no doubt want to poke those fears with some ritual acting out,” says Clark, author of the book All Together Now: American Holiday Symbolism Among Children and Adults (Rutgers University Press).

However, she adds, since Halloween is an “anti-normative holiday for adults,” she worries that some will still want to gather in large groups.

“Public health officials should be reminding people now of how to keep Halloween from actually killing anyone,” she says.

Clark notes that Halloween didn’t exist during the 1918 flu pandemic, so it’s impossible to draw a parallel. However, in the Pennsylvania neighborhood where she studied Halloween in the midst of the anthrax scare, many authorities recommended skipping the trick-or-treat ritual that year. Despite these warnings, every family she met still participated. Parents just scaled down their visits to only those families within their circle of trust, such as their immediate neighborhood.

“Kids had just as much fun as in prior years, when I had done research in the same neighborhood the year before,” she says. “However, there were much reduced visits to haunted houses and other haunted attractions.”

Ultimately, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, many Americans will most likely seek different ways this year to maintain some semblance of their Halloween traditions while abiding by social-distancing norms. She notes that children’s success at the Halloween ritual lies in impressing strangers with their mock-adult costume roles and collecting candy – and there are ways to make it safe, albeit with precautions and perhaps without going too far afield of one’s trusted, immediate neighborhood. Clark personally plans to put a table with wrapped treats outside her door so that kids don’t have to reach across the threshold of her house.

“I will also put a mark with tape on the walk in front of my house to ensure social distancing,” she says, “but I also plan to really praise kids’ costumes from that safe distance.”

The best indication of how Halloween will be celebrated, she says, is seen in the way that people have adapted other cultural rituals, such as graduations, weddings, and birthdays. This means that there will likely be online adaptations of such rites as the school Halloween parade, but kids will still crave the candy – and the attention.

“If your community has an online Halloween parade, be sure to comment on particular costumes – for example, in the chat – for kids really like a sense of parading before adults on Halloween and showing off their mock selves,” she says. “Kids will very much appreciate this interaction with viewers during Zoom Halloween parades.”

Another no-brainer, she says, is the ritual of trunk-or-treat wherein people gather their cars in a parking lot – often primarily done in the past by religious groups – and trick-or-treat out of their car trunks. That sort of adaptation has gone on already, she notes, and might be a good way to adapt trick-or-treating since it naturally employs social distancing, is an outdoor activity, and consists of interaction within a circle of trusted others.

Clark notes that Rutgers University recently highlighted excellent advice on how the rites of Halloween can be adapted in order to stay safe. Among these recommendations, the Rutgers–Camden researcher maintains that dressing like heroes of health care, such as doctors or nurses, is an exceptional idea. On the flipside, she says, people should be mindful of any COVID-19-related iconography that “hits too close to home.”

“Keep in mind that your neighbors may be coping with COVID-19 trauma as you choose how to decorate or what costumes to wear,” she says.

Despite these temporary modifications, Clark doesn’t foresee them being absorbed into our annual celebrations. The in-person aspect of Halloween, she says, is central to the celebration. Children are being challenged to knock on the doors of strangers and take candy from them – and that ritual will survive. Moreover, trick-or-treating is one of the only contemporary rituals in which the community acts to be responsive to and supportive of children with whom they don’t have a familial connection.

“The moment when an unknown adult responds to the door, makes a fuss over your costume, and hands over chocolate is at the very heart of the holiday,” she says. “It’s hard to imagine that one year of pandemic will cause that tradition to disappear completely.”

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