I have been informally keeping tabs on Inland Northwest trick-or-treating since The Slice column started in 1992. The trend seems clear. So here’s my prediction: This time-honored holiday ritual is about to give up the ghost. Sad news, in my view. I can’t imagine Halloween without it. But what are you gonna do?
Sure, collecting candy door-to-door remains monstrously popular in many small towns. And there are neighborhoods in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene where the Halloween headcounts are still impressive.
But I would argue that these are isolated pockets of resistance. Free-range Halloween is fading. Institutional, organized, programmed Halloween is ascendant.
All sorts of statistics attest to the fact that Halloween has become big, big business. Sales of confections, costumes and decorations have it second only to Christmas in terms of cha-ching. In the marketing world, Halloween is now a season.
But there are no reliable national numbers on trick-or-treating.
“I don’t know whether trick-or-treating is really declining,” said Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware. “One hears a lot of anecdotal comments to that effect, but who knows?”
Best has studied the tradition’s biggest enemy — the perception that trick-or-treating is potentially dangerous.
His research shows that there have been astonishingly few proven cases of children being given adulterated candy.
But the thought of pins or poison understandably prompts a primal fear in parents.
So we might as well face it: Trick-or-treating’s innocence is lost forever.
That is not the only challenge, though. People not knowing their neighbors, religious objections and the off-putting behavior of pint-sized greedheads and some too-old trick-or-treaters all erode support for the tradition.
But perhaps I’m being unduly pessimistic. Maybe trick-or-treat is too good to die.
I asked around. Is the practice of ringing doorbells on Halloween bound for extinction?
“Never, never happen,” said Ellen Weiser, a 55-year-old artist and gardener.
Dennis Schneider, a 64-year-old Air Force retiree, predicted it would, “still be going strong after you and I are dead and gone.”
Mary Sherrill echoed that sentiment.
“What kid of sound mind would stop doing that?” said the 41-year-old claims adjuster. “Parents who trick-or-treated as kids want their own children to experience the pleasure of dumping all the candy on the floor so they can sort, trade and eat.”
And Cindi John, a 52-year-old nurse, wondered if baby boomers might keep it alive by sheer force of will — continuing to spread the good word with evangelical zeal. “Eventually it will turn a full circle,” she said.
Not everyone is quite so sure.
Those of a certain age cherish their Wolfman/Wonder Woman memories. Asking a baby boomer about his or her childhood costumes is like setting the conversation on autopilot. Almost everyone has plenty to say.
But some observers suspect today’s kids might not be equally enthralled.
“It’s too much work for something that our children get too much of every day,” said Teresa Kafentzis, 50, nutrition services director at Shriners Hospital for Children.
Mary Kunkel, a 57-year-old massage therapist, guessed that it will, in fact, disappear. She’s not happy about that.
Gabriele Grover, the 46-year-old owner of a drywall business, said it is already on the way out. “I see it fading more every year,” she said.
For her, that is a melancholy realization.
Others, though, wouldn’t miss it. “I, not being a huge fan of the ritual, hope it dies a natural death — with dignity of course,” said Christine Schrader, a 54-year-old homemaker.
Like virtually everything about Halloween, there is disagreement over the origins of trick-or-treating.
Some say it goes back centuries. Others contend it is really a relatively recent invention, calculated to give young people considering vandalism a more socially acceptable holiday outlet.
It’s not unusual, however, for many Spokane area homeowners to see hardly any mini witches and small superheroes heading toward their front doors on Oct. 31.
“I see it as another symptom of the fading sense of community in many neighborhoods,” said Greg Worcester, 28, who works at Home Depot.
But Loren Lutzenhiser, a sociologist at Portland State University, urged those of us poised to write trick-or-treating’s obituary to keep something in mind.
“In some places, there are fewer kids,” he said.
Steve Haynes, a 53-year-old city of Spokane employee, responded to my query about trick-or-treating’s imminent demise by referring to a “Peanuts” holiday staple.
“Is the Great Pumpkin dead?” he said. “Say it ain’t so, Charlie Brown. Say it ain’t so.”
He called the costumed house-to-house sprint “One of the greatest joys of being young.”
Hyperbole? Maybe. Still, there’s something to be said for getting to play make-believe in the dark, rushing through the leaves and holding open your goodies sack with sweet expectations. When you’re little, that qualifies as an adventure.
So it seems sort of odd, at a time when our society excels at overdoing special occasions, to be talking about the possible disappearance of a holiday classic.
Maybe, though, it’s not just trick-or-treating that is at risk. Perhaps Halloween itself should fear the reaper.
North Idaho writer Kathy Walker said she thinks that one day Christmas will swallow it whole. “We’ll just have one long Christmas season starting in October and geezers (fortysomethings) like me will talk about the good old days when we used to go door-to-door begging for candy.
“The next generation of kids will wonder what the heck we’re talking about.”
Now that would be scary.