The worst Halloween trick in U.S. history might have been played on an entire generation of New England children -- by their own government. And it comes to an end this Sunday.
The most horrifying stories are those in which the antagonist intentionally, but inexplicably, inflicts pain on innocent victims. The more irrational or unreasonable the villain, the more horrifying. It will probably come as no surprise to American Spectator readers that the villain in this tale began its reign of terror in that decade in which reason took an extended nap -- the 1960s.
Starting in 1969, tales of Halloween horror took a sudden and unexplained leap in the public consciousness. Researchers Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi, writing in 1985 in the journal Social Problems, found that from 1969 to 1973, America was awash in stories of terrifying Halloween-night sadism. All the now-familiar crimes were reported -- razor blades in apples, poisoned kids, sexual assaults and abductions, you name it. Many were reported in major newspapers, including the New York Times.
Across the country, local governments acted quickly to protect children. Many set official trick-or-treating hours to prevent kids from being out late, or to keep them in on Halloween night altogether. Manchester, N.H. was one of these municipalities. In 1972, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to give the chief of police the power to set official trick-or-treating hours. Being the chief of police, he erred on the side of safety and ordered that the city's children would trick or treat during the daytime -- on the weekend before Halloween.
Fearing the horror stories, the government of Manchester effectively rescinded Halloween. The chief decreed, and the mayor and aldermen supported, that Halloween would occur during the afternoon of the Sunday before Halloween -- even if October 31 fell on a Sunday. The trouble was, the horror stories weren't true.
In their 1985 research, Best and Horiuchi found that not a single story of Halloween sadism was true. No child in America had ever found a razor blade in his apple. There were no random poisonings, and there was no increase in assaults, abductions, tortures, kidnappings, or anything else. The tales were all hoaxes.
There was, Best and Horiuchi found, a single child poisoned by Halloween candy. He was poisoned in 1974 by his own father, who did it for the insurance money. The father was executed in 1984. That was not a case of "stranger danger." In fact, research shows that Halloween night is no more dangerous than any other night. That research continues. An article last year in "Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment" found no increase in instances of sexual abuse on Halloween night.
The research on Halloween hoaxes emerged a decade after municipalities overreacted to the hoaxes by denying kids a Halloween-night rite of passage. Since then, it has made its way out of the academic journals and into the broader public domain. As the myths were busted, municipalities changed their policies. But Manchester didn't.
Police chiefs came and went, but decade after decade each of them made the same determination: Halloween would be held on the Sunday before October 31. Years passed since the myth of the poisoned apple was proven false -- decades passed, even -- and still Manchester denied its children the thrill of joining millions of other American children in an innocent and meaningful adventure in youthful self-exploration. It was not only irrational, but harmful.
Halloween is more than a massive candy-grab. Prompting kids try on grown-up personas and slip into the darkness to negotiate with total strangers, all under the watchful eyes of multitudes of parents, it involves the entire community in giving children their first chance to overcome some of the human race's innate fears -- darkness, strangers, and parental separation.
In short, Halloween is an important social ritual. When the nanny state takes that away in the name of safety, it can slow the development of the children in the community.
For 38 years, that is what Manchester, N.H., did. And then, this year, Police Chief David Mara did something completely unexpected. He announced, out of the blue, that the city's trick-or-treating hours would be on Halloween afternoon. After some prodding from new mayor Ted Gatsas, Mara later switched the hours. They will be on Halloween night.
So this Sunday, for the first time in nearly four decades, the children of Manchester will haunt the streets of Manchester under the cold, dark sky on October 31. I suspect that a lot of their parents, who never knew the thrill, will find excuses to wear masks themselves that night. And behind them, they'll be smiling.