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The Secret History of Halloween

  • Blog Post by: James Lileks
  • October 31, 2013 - 12:36 PM

Not secret at all, but that’s how you write headlines these days.

How modern Halloween began, according to Fast Company:

Every Halloween, millions of surrogate zombies, vampires, and goblins take to the streets, looking to fill the fluorescent orange brainpans of their plastic pumpkins with individually wrapped, fun-sized candies. It seems like a custom immemorial, but trick-or-treating wasn't always an inseparable part of Halloween: in fact, little more than 60 years ago, many Americans had never even seen a trick-or-treater.

Indeed. Look at the old ads, and you won’t see Trick-or-Treaters rise until the 50s, but they’re not getting Halloween-specific candy. Cracker Jack in ordinary boxes. I don’t know how they coped.

While going door-to-door for candy may be a relatively new phenomenon, Halloween has always been about the things trick-or-treating represent: sugar and fear.

In the ritual of trick-or-treating itself, though, U.S. candy makers have discovered countless ways to make money marketing both sweets and terror, to the tune of over $2.3 billion a year in 2011 alone.

Whether you're a kid who loves monsters and gore, or a parent terrified of being egged for running out of caramels (or worse, seeing your child poisoned), U.S. candy makers have always been quick to respond with a candy that is custom-tailored to both your cravings and your anxieties.

Meh. “Fear” and “anxiety” seem a bit overstated. But the article notes that “Brachs, for example, was advertising seasonal Halloween candy with jack o'lanterns and trick-or-treaters on the boxes as early as 1962,” and that’s about right. I found an example in Life:

Here’s what gave away before, in the 50s: CEREAL.

CHICAWGO Popped in at Pleasant Family Shopping, a site devoted to old grocery stores, and watched a rather discursive commercial from the 70s. It’s notable now because no one seems to have regional accents in commercials very much anymore:

The post went on to note that the chain is being phased our by its parent company. YouTube comment: “Mom & Pop stores are a thing of the past. All we have left are the big box stores. I wonder what went wrong ? Bad capitalism?” Well, we have lower prices, better quality, and wider selection, so there’s that. Never underestimate the power of grocery store nostalgia, though; if you tagged along with mom to a particular store when you were a kid, the brands have a powerful pull. The account of Dominick’s is here, with some fantastic pictures of old stores. Even the grainy video grabs bring back the 70s in a flash:

Smoked-glass red gourd-globes. Ah yes. By which I mean no, thanks, if anyone’s planning on bringing that 70s aesthetic back, but it’s nice to be reminded.

NOW THIS IS SCARY  England had some wind this week. A landing at the Birmingham airport:

This is why you’d best not look out the window during a windy landing. The runway will line up eventually, but when you’re coming down and you see the runway pointing at 2 o’clock, you fear you’ll be in the terminal quicker than expected.

FORGOTTEN NO MORE Another favorite blog: “Daily Inspiration,” which looks at all the great illustrators of the 20th century. The latest entry concerns Ben Denison. There were so many of these artists, and it’s a shame they’re constantly eclipsed by modern painters whose fashionable abstraction is far less engaging. For some, anyway.

Have a fun and non-anxious Halloween.

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