Halloween Howlings

13 Sep

  Halloween is just around the corner.  This is the  holiday  when Americans  typically buy the most candy.  Like a lot of kids, a major part of much of my  childhood was essentially  a quest to acquire  as much candy as I possibly could get my hands on and Halloween  was the Holy Grail.

I loved dressing up and trick-or-treating. My mother devised a spectacular witch’s costume  that never fail to win a prize.   Both my brother and I won   first place  at the annual junior high school contest with it.

  With more than a little irony,  my mother  had used a black dress and shoes, belonging to my grandmother (her mother-in-law)  as the foundation  of  the outfit.  She added a cape with a jack-o- lantern emblazoned on  the back, a tall witch’s  hat,  the wartiest witch’s mask she could find, and a wig fashioned from an old  mop. My father never cared for the costume,  possibly because  the  final product was basically  a mildly exaggerated  caricature of  my actual grandmother (his mother). Given the relationship between my mother and grandmother,  this was undoubtedly  how  my mother envisioned her.

The witch’s costume was too elaborate for trick-or-treating, so  I wore those   commercial costumes that came in a box. I never liked how they  had a picture of the character you were portraying  displayed across the  front. Even I knew that Zorro never wore a shirt that had a picture of himself on it.   They also  had  those uncomfortable hard plastic masks, that were impossible to see through and  made breathing difficult. They were  held in place  by   flimsy black elastic bands with metal clips on the ends,  that never seemed to  make it  past the front steps.

Every year there were always rumors that  some big kids would knock you down and take your candy— kids like my archenemy, Marlin Hutchingson. Marlin and his gang of thugs always dressed  like hobos. These were popular costumes  among children whose  parents grew up during the depression. I never saw a real hobo, but I knew what they looked like,  thanks to Red Skelton’s portrayal of Freddie the Freeloader. The classic hobo costume was made up  of raggedy  oversized clothes, a rope belt, a battered fedora, and a stick with a red bandana bundle. To   appear as if  you hadn’t shaved,  you’d smear    cork soot on your face. Marlin, who   looked like he needed a shave,  since  the third grade,  could forgo this step. While most of us carried cute little plastic trick-or-treat  bags with black cats them, Marlin and his ilk  preferred ratty king-sized pillowcases, which could double as  giant blackjacks, when needed.      

Back  in elementary school,  Marlin’s  lunch always came  from the candy machine. I shouldn’t talk since   in high school a  root beer and Butterfinger was my standard bill of fare.  But even as a young child,  Marlin was constantly eating candy,  so I wasn’t surprised when a recent  study in the British Journal of Psychiatry showed that children who ate sweets and chocolate every day were much  more likely to be violent as adults.  Ten year-olds who ate candy daily were significantly more likely to have been convicted for violence crimes at age 24. The relationship  between sweets  and violence remained even after controlling for other factors. According to  lead researcher Simon Moore,  “Giving children sweets and chocolate regularly may stop them learning how to wait to obtain something they want. Not being able to defer gratification may push them towards more impulsive behavior, which is strongly associated with delinquency.” 

In the 1960s, Walter Mischel at Stanford University gave four-year-olds a marshmallow and promised another, only if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Only about a third of the children could wait.  As adolescents,  the children who could wait,  were  rated as better adjusted and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.  This is an enormous difference.  Chidlren who were future oriented,  benefited tremendously more  from their education that those who focused on immediate pleasure.  A similar experiment, using presents,   found that children who could not delay gratifications were routinely described   more   “irritable”, aggressive, and whiny”,   while those showing restraint,  were rated as more  “intelligent”, “resourceful”, and “competent”.

In Walden II,  psychologist B.F. Skinner’s book about an ideal society  based on the principles of behaviorism,  young children  were given   lollipops, dipped in powdered sugar,  to wear around their necks,  to develop self-control. They were told that they could  eat the lollipops later, but only if it hadn’t  been touched.  These children   were expected to learn  to ignore the temptation of the candy.  Skinner’s protagonist  says  “Some of us learn control, more or less by accident. The rest of us go all our lives …  blaming our failure on being born the wrong way.”  Of course  such training  would never work with  kids like Marlin, who would just  jerk your  lollipop from around your neck, saving his own for later.

Forbidden lollipops may not be the answer,  but we indulgent parents and grandparents, who  enjoy immediately giving our children everything they desire, have to think twice  about  whether we are actually doing this for our own benefit and are inadvertently putting the next generation at risk. 

Besides candy bullies, I remember  being afraid of  crazed neighbors,  who might hide foreign objects in apples or contaminate candy with deadly poisons. We all heard the urban legend  about the kid who, in the dark,  grabbed some  candy right out of his trick-or-treat bag and ended up biting into a Gillette double edge razor blade.

Sociologist Joel Best, from University of Delaware, researched  major newspapers back to 1958 and found fewer than 90 cases of alleged candy  tampering.  There were only a dozen reported cases over the past 20 years. Most turned out to be false alarms or  hoaxes,  like the recent story of boy in the  runaway helium  balloon.

Best did identify   five suspicious  deaths, initially believed to be related to tampering. In  three cases,  investigators found no evidence of foul play. In one case, however,  a  father was convicted and eventually executed for  lacing his son’s  candy with cyanide. In the last instance,  a  family covered up a child’s accidental ingestion of an uncle’s drug stash, blaming it on tainted Halloween candy. So despite all the psychopathic killers lurking about, the greatest danger, it seems, unsurprisingly comes from our own families.

All this doesn’t mean that such things can’t happen,  and a little prudence never hurts. The Red Cross  recommends  having adults inspect all candy  and advises discarding any open or  unwrapped items.

  Of course, the greatest Halloween dangers are the average parent rushing home to spend the holiday with their children  and  distracted  drivers texting on the road. This year make sure your kids are alert to these potential Halloween monsters and have a safe holiday.

Originally published in the Tribune & Evening News (http://newsandtribune.com/)


3 Responses to “Halloween Howlings”

  1. ciji stewart September 17, 2010 at 4:40 pm #

    Dear Sir,

    You may not remember me. I am John Brandon Stewarts’ older sister. I reside in New York. I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed your article. It was funny. It is nice to hear stories from generations that were before ours. Anyway keep writing My family and I love reading your articles.


    Ciji Stewart

    • Terry Stawar September 17, 2010 at 6:22 pm #

      Sure I remember you. We always thought Brandon was lucky to have such a sister. Thanks so much for reading. I just saw Brandon a few day ago at a local store.



  1. 2010 in review « Welcome to Planet Terry - January 3, 2011

    […] Halloween Howlings September 2010 2 comments 4 […]

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