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Lessons from the Halloween Aisle

Every September it appears like a carnival stealing into town under cover of darkness; the seasonal Halloween aisle at your local supermarket. It’s an explosion of shiny sequins and rubbery red devil horns: face paint, wigs, fake cobwebs, and Styrofoam headstones. It’s a cacophony of moods and flavors, the delight of many children (and not a few adults). That seasonal aisle hides more secrets than most people know. For example, there’s a recent documentary called Halloween in a Box that celebrates the rise of low-cost, store-bought plastic Halloween costumes; a tradition that proudly continues to this day. As the film tells it, trick-or-treating almost went extinct in America, and it was only the efforts of a plucky band of rapacious industrialists that may have salvaged the tradition. I’m glad trick-or-treating survived. It’s always an interesting barometer of where kids’ heads are at and what stories resonate with them.

Another lesson we can learn from the seasonal Halloween aisle is to enjoy the simple things in life, and to (when appropriate) let our inner six-year-olds go bonkers. A hideous rubber mask depicting an old, warty face or a bloody skull? Try it on! Breathe in that sweet, distinctive chemical aroma and check yourself out in the nearest reflective surface. A gunny sack of assorted chocolate goodies? It’s hard to argue with the appeal of that. If you look at the Halloween aisle with the jaundiced eyes of an adult, it can look like an explosion of gaudy crap – but keep in mind that Halloween is a time for gaudy crap.

Of course, there are other lessons hidden in that gaudy crap, some of them a little more complex. For example, the fact that in 2019 our world is an interdependent, interconnected place. Take that rubbery skull mask, for example; inspect its smooth interior and you are likely to find a manufacturing stamp that announces its point of origin as China or Bangladesh. This is not some nefarious scheme on the part of these countries to flood Target with junk, nor is it a sinister plot to “steal” the US’ manufacturing sector. The voracious American appetite for cheap consumer goods is really responsible for this industrial cross-pollination. America is a yawning vortex of a culture, a hungry, ever-rapacious maw into which the many nations of the world pour their products. In some ways, this is an excellent thing. The magpie nature of American culture means we can be – when on our best behavior – welcoming, inquisitive, and passionate seekers of new experiences. In other ways, this descends into gluttony. I love a gap-toothed, googly-eyed pumpkin decoration more than the average person, but these days, the thought of the carbon footprint (and cast-off plastic husks) associated with such novelties gives me pause.

These are scares for grown-ups, and not necessarily fun ones. Halloween in a Box celebrates what seems like a more innocent (or ignorant) time, a time when US manufacturing had not yet evaporated, leaving a vacuum that is now rapidly being filled by poisonous ethno-nationalism. The days of the Halloween aisle’s emergence were days when most people did not yet fully grasp the lethal implications of late capitalism’s bonfire of carbon and rivers of pollution. Humanity’s childhood has ended, however, and if we are to survive the journey from adolescence to adulthood we’re going to need radical, systemic change. For reasons both ethical and practical, this change has to begin with the developed nations who brought us to this point, the United States in particular. Before too much angst and rage are generated by this notion, it’s important to note that slashing carbon, reducing our use of plastics, and other changes that will be required do not mean the end of things that we enjoy (unless one of those things is “rolling coal”).

It does, however, probably require a reduction in the amount of off-the-shelf consumption that Americans engage in, and that includes the seasonal Halloween aisle. Gunny sacks of candy are perfectly fine, but it’s time to examine the tidal wave of manufactured junk associated with trick-or-treating and think about ways to reduce our reliance on the wares at Wal-Mart and Target. One way to do this while keeping trick-or-treating alive as a vibrant tradition is to try – whenever possible – to opt for homemade costumes over premade ones. True, this will require more time and effort on the part of parents, but in addition to reducing the environmental impact of Halloween, homemade costumes offer far more flavor and individual expression than premade ones. For example, this is my all-time favorite Halloween costume from my youth, a coordinated effort with my little sis (she’s the one on the plate):

Halloween is by far my favorite holiday, a day I enjoy and look forward to more than any other day of the year. It will bring a pang to my heart to see the seasonal Halloween aisle shrink or even disappear. But a future where Halloween – and, indeed, the species – continues is more important than our attachment to silly bric-a-brac. At least, I hope it is.

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