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I suspect it's Gen X, damn them.
October 13, 2009 5:06 PM   Subscribe

When, exactly, did Halloween become so frickin' popular?

I have the sense that over the past, say, 10 or 15 years, Halloween has become much more popular, to the point where it's now the 2nd-ranking holiday behind Christmas. Particularly, Halloween has become much more important to adults, to the point where most people in their 20s and 30s assume and plan that they'll have to come up with some kind of costume. Halloween now seems to have the rep of the "fun" holiday: as opposed to the irksome family obligations/religious associations with Christmas, Halloween is all about sex, candy, and a little light deviltry.

What I'm trying to figure out is, what caused this change? Has anyone studied this stuff? What were the markers of the shift? I can think of three things: The Simpsons, Rosanne, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. All circa the mid-90s.

Are there any ore such markers? Are they earlier? Is there any other evidence of the Halloween explosion? Can anyone, for instance, point me to a good source of stats on Sexy Nurse rentals?

Or am I just wrong and Halloween has always been this popular? I'm not saying that there was no such thing as a costume party before 1993, that's clearly not the case. But it does seem like Halloween used to be for kids and now it's not. Can anyone help me prove that?
posted by Diablevert to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think mid-90s too; very safe because no religious connotations, no family, booze and sex and dressing as provocatively as you wish are acceptable. I think it was more for kids when it was safe to let your kids wander all over town with no supervision and eat all the razorblade-free apples and homemade popcorn balls they wanted.
posted by variella at 5:17 PM on October 13, 2009


I think it was more for kids when it was safe to let your kids wander all over town with no supervision and eat all the razorblade-free apples and homemade popcorn balls they wanted.

Honestly, in most places crime is going down. It's probably safer to do that now than ever. It's too bad we've all become worry-warts.
posted by floam at 5:23 PM on October 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think the 90s also saw an explosion of beer-related marketing around Halloween, even including Elvira Mistress of the Dark.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:30 PM on October 13, 2009


Maybe it just seems that way because of how thoroughly the Think of the Children™ crowd have ruined it for actual children. Last year, I noticed in my (completely safe) town that children start trick or treating around 4pm and are done by dark. The heck? There were lots of kids not even dressed up. The whole thing seemed devoid of spirit, just dutiful motions to collect candy, which I have no doubt was mostly chucked when they got it home by parents frightened of razor blades, cyanide, and lsd cocktails.

So I guess I see it different, it seems more like it's dying rather than getting more popular. Perhaps it remains popular among GenX out of nostalgia.
posted by cj_ at 5:31 PM on October 13, 2009


and, yeah, aggressive marketing.
posted by cj_ at 5:32 PM on October 13, 2009


cj_: it's dying for children while at the same time becoming more popular for adults. I'm pretty certain that the two are linked.

Kids who had lameass Halloweens now want to have cool ones as they reach young adulthood.
posted by Netzapper at 5:47 PM on October 13, 2009


"Or am I just wrong and Halloween has always been this popular?"

I think it has - well at least in the past 40 years or so. The adults have always enjoyed it and still do. It's a fun holiday where people can let their inhibitions go, dress up and pretend to be otherwise. No family obligations, presents, just fun. And you know - harvest festival, winter coming and all. Woo.

It's the kids who have suffered in the past 15 or so years, as cj_ points out above. Which sucks. When I was a kid we went wild. Kids don't even really properly trick or treat anymore. They go to the mall.

This is wrong.
posted by mkim at 5:48 PM on October 13, 2009


I've wondered about this a lot too, and it seems to me that there's a broad drive in human societies to create a holiday where you hide your identity and indulge in behavior that goes against social norms: saturnalia, carnival, mardi gras, and now halloween. There are a lot more that I can't think of right now, and I wouldn't be surprised if there was some correlation with the strictness of a society, but look up the Wikipedia page about Venice and masks and Lent during the time of the Venetian Republic. It's crazy.

It definitely seems that people born somewhere between 1975 and 1983 or so just never went through that period where they grew out of Halloween. I think all the proof you need that Halloween wasn't always like this is that people over that age still don't generally celebrate Halloween. If you ask most people I know who are in their 50s what their Halloween plans are, they'll give you a puzzled look and say 'oh, my children are grown.' if only they knew the truth... It makes sense to _have_ a Halloween, but why it popped up now, and in the form of Halloween is more mysterious. However, I won't let my lack of knowledge on this topic keep me from hand-waving and baseless speculation, because where would Ask Metafilter be without that?

So the theory I'm going to posit is that it has something to do with the general pushing back of achieving traditional American Adult Milestones in that age cohort. That phenomenon is well-documented: people born around then marry later, they have children later, etc. Perhaps, without the countervailing adult responsibilities, there seemed to be less reason to abandon Halloween at adulthood, and once you break through that, its natural to hang on to the holiday as it fills the saturnalia/carnival role for modern Americans (who could probably do with a bit more, honestly).

Moving beyond this, there seem to be a lot of holidays that came out of nowhere in America recently. Many people think its completely de rigeur to have Cinqo De Mayo parties, for instance. In Chicago, schools close for Pulaski Day. In New York, St. Patrick's day is not a day you get off school, but its certainly a day when everyone cuts. In Boston, the whole city shuts down for Marathon Monday. I was invited to two different 'bring a bunch of people to a farm and eat' parties this weekend, which seems like a pretty direct manifestation of the age-old Harvest Celebration, though both were organized under alternative pretenses. It seems to me that Americans, increasingly boxed in by absolutely insane cultural attitudes as to how much time needs to be spent in the office and a fall in observation of old-time religious/animist Feast Days and so on, are desperate for excuses to party, relax, or blow off steam, and so they are keen to jump behind any figleaf of a holiday.
posted by jeb at 5:49 PM on October 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


I wonder, too -- and this being Metafilter, I'm sure someone with actual stats will be along shortly to say whether my hunch is pure conjecture or might actually have something to do with demographics -- that it also became more of an adult thing as the average age of childbearing has risen somewhat? (on preview: I see that I agree with jeb.)

I hit my mid-20s in the early/mid '90s, right as the whole Halloween-as-major-adult-holiday trend seemed to be underway. From college until a few years after grad school, I went to massive Halloween parties every year, as did the majority of my friends and colleagues -- and looking back now, I realize that very, very few of us had kids at the time. I can think of a small handful who had children then, but most of the people I knew then (and know now) didn't have their children in their 20s or early 30s; they waited till their mid-30s into their 40s. Contrast this with my parents/grandparents and most of my friends' parents/grandparents, who almost universally had kids in their early or mid-20s.

In other words: when our parents were in their 20s and 30s, they had us to take trick-or-treating or to Halloween parties. But when Gen X hit the same age, fewer of us had kids of our own... and so the Halloween impulse got channeled into continuing the celebration as adults, rather than just passing it off to children.
posted by scody at 5:54 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I remember it being the cool party holiday in the eighties, so you might have to expand your scope a bit. But I have trouble imagining it being a big deal in, say, the 1940's, so you may be on to something.
posted by rokusan at 5:55 PM on October 13, 2009


Kids don't even really properly trick or treat anymore

Well, kids aren't allowed two blocks from their house unsupervised in America anymore. That's not really a Hallowe'en-related change.

(When I was an eight year old, I could wander for at least a half-mile in any direction without anyone raising an eyebrow. Try that today and someone would probably call Child Protective Services on the parents, if not a SWAT team.)
posted by rokusan at 5:57 PM on October 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


Yep, mid-90s.
posted by Doohickie at 5:59 PM on October 13, 2009


(When I was an eight year old, I could wander for at least a half-mile in any direction without anyone raising an eyebrow. Try that today and someone would probably call Child Protective Services on the parents, if not a SWAT team.)
posted by rokusan at 5:57 PM on October 13 [1 favorite +] [!]

Agreed. But this does not make me any less sad. On the other hand I do not have any actual children. Just memories of being one. So there is that.
posted by mkim at 6:10 PM on October 13, 2009


> cj_: it's dying for children while at the same time becoming more popular for adults.

I'm having trouble with that part. Is it actually more popular with adults than it was 10 years ago? By what metric? I'm not disagreeing, it's just not something I've noticed. I was in my 20s then and it was a pretty big party day. Was in high school too, come to think of it. I can't speak from first hand experience before 1990, but I've seen a lot of 80s movies, and apparently people did nothing but dress funny and party then. :)

scody's hypothesis rings true to me, that this is a genX thing, although I'm not sure if it's related to having children or not. Judging by my peers, even the ones with six figure salaries and 2.5 kids, we're infused with a certain lack of seriousness that I won't even try to explain the origins of, but it probably involves baby boomers somehow.
posted by cj_ at 6:12 PM on October 13, 2009


In my experience
Halloween was big in the 70's, I trick or treated, my parents went to parties
Halloween was big in the 80's, I partied, my parents went to parties
I don't know about for most of the 90's I was overseas, my parents went to parties
Halloween has been big in the 00's, my kids trick or treated, I turned down parties, my parents went to parties

I haven't noticed any major changes in popularity. I also recall big adult halloween parties. My mom always tried to win best costume and the parties she went to were pretty popular. So the popularity of the holiday extended through the age groups.
posted by forforf at 6:23 PM on October 13, 2009


Cynically, I just imagined it as the most convenient date between labor day and thanksgiving to market so as to keep the consumer machine rolling.
super bowl is the same idea, and march madness, and now cinco de mayo.
It's a pretty good scheme, as party days are spread nicely across the calendar.
posted by OHenryPacey at 6:24 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


But it does seem like Halloween used to be for kids and now it's not.

"In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland's potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today's "trick-or-treat" tradition. Young women believed that, on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors.

"In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers, than about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft.

"At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything "frightening" or "grotesque" out of Halloween celebrations. Because of their efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.

"By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism began to plague Halloween celebrations in many communities during this time. By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated. Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats. A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country's second largest commercial holiday."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:29 PM on October 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


I commented about the rise in Halloween celebration in this recent question.
posted by Miko at 6:51 PM on October 13, 2009


Corporate America decided to aggresively promote it and market it toward adults beginning around the time you mention. That's why it's so popular now.

Kids don't have disposable income. Adults do. And it's all about expanding markets.

Moving beyond this, there seem to be a lot of holidays that came out of nowhere in America recently. Many people think its completely de rigeur to have Cinqo De Mayo parties,

Because, again, corporate america decided to agressively promote it to sell beer, fast food, booze and snack foods. In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo goes by every year practically un-noticed.

All of the "wondering" going on over this question really concerns me. The answer is right in your favorite multi-national's prospectus.
posted by Zambrano at 6:58 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think it is more generational in that those in the single or married but without kids age have always let loose on Halloween. If you have kids it sort of becomes logistically difficult to do both. I've seen enough jaw dropping 70s Halloween coked party pictures to say confidently that post-sexual revolution slutty Halloween costumes definitely at least began before the 80s in middle America. The costumes sucked though. I think the prominence of Halloween in the national cultural landscape has more to do with people delaying marriage and kids and the rise of blogs and the Internet to document this. No other holiday do you really make something to show off, so there's definitely a DIY aspect that makes this shareable and interesting when going through friend's photos on The Facebook and such. It is a highly visible holiday.

Besides, would you rather look through your friends Flickr of their oh-so-clever Halloween costume or getting trashed on cheap gin over Christmas, in their parents basement and with friends they went to high school with?
posted by geoff. at 7:16 PM on October 13, 2009


All of the "wondering" going on over this question really concerns me. The answer is right in your favorite multi-national's prospectus.

I think you're attribute waaaay too much competence to multinationals.
posted by jeb at 8:32 PM on October 13, 2009


BoingBoing mentioned Halloween safety recently:
Was there ever really a rash of candy killings? Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, took it upon himself to find out. He studied crime reports from Halloween dating back as far as 1958, and guess exactly how many kids he found poisoned by a stranger's candy?

A hundred and five? A dozen? Well, one, at least?

"The bottom line is that I cannot find any evidence that any child has ever been killed or seriously hurt by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating," says the professor. The fear is completely unfounded.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:27 AM on October 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


In the very early 1980s, Hallowe'en was a big deal in my house. By the mid 1980s, my mom had found a source for watercolor stage makeup, spirit gum, and fake hair. My dad was already pretty hairy and used to get made up as a werewolf and sit on the porch with the candy, utterly still while the neighbor kids debated about whether "it" was real or a statue and daring each other to touch "it." He only came to life once they were on the porch. We also made cardboard gravestones and cotton cobwebs... come to think of it, I guess the rest of the world caught up, because it's a lot easier to find those decorations pre-made. My mom also did one house we lived in as a giant gingerbread house for Christmas. I haven't seen giant lollipops and gingerbread-man statues premade in all the Christmas retail hype, though.

Anyway, maybe it is Gen X, or just me, but I can't imagine not taking any opportunity to wear a costume when it arises. Then again, my hubby and I were the only people dressed in costumes for the premiere of the Simpsons movie, at least in our town.
posted by Cricket at 7:16 AM on October 14, 2009


Halloween has become much more important to adults, to the point where most people in their 20s and 30s assume

That's the younger adults. In my experience, breeders change their Halloween focus to their children, while most of the child-free (with a few demographic exceptions) lose interest in Halloween by their late 30s.
posted by Rash at 11:32 AM on October 14, 2009


Thanks for giving it a go, all. Guess I'll have to do a bit more poking to see if there's been any real change in the past twenty years or so. Interesting data point --- I was just watching Tales of the City *cough*youtube*cough and there's an exchange of dialog --- a nine year old kid asks a 25 year old main character why she's not dressed up, to which the main character says "Because I'm a grown up," and the kid points out a bunch of drag queens making their way through the Castro, saying "They're dressed up." It wouldn't mean much, being fiction, but the dialog in this is pretty much straight from the books, which were themselves serialized in the San Francisco papers in the mid-70s, and are chock-a-block with obscure contemporary pop culture references...
posted by Diablevert at 5:03 PM on October 14, 2009


I have some 8 mm home movies of my parents and their friends celebrating Halloween at a party in Miama, FL circa 1959-60. My Dad is dressed as Elvis doing his best impression with a ukelele. All of the other adults are in costume as well, dressed as hobos and sluts with scarves, hair pieces, liquor bottles, you know, all the stuff you still see today. I wish there was way I could post it. It's very entertaining. So while it's really nothing new, I think it's just more commercial and publicized. The same movie shows me dressed as Tweety Bird at age 4-5. I wonder where I was when the party was going on?
posted by wv kay in ga at 5:13 PM on October 14, 2009


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