Have you ever found it odd that for one night a year, millions of people in the US dress up and go door-to-door asking for candy? Trick-or-treating as we know it today may seem like a timeless tradition, but it’s only been around for a few decades. Halloween is a holiday that has been shaped by two things: fear and sugar. US companies have kept the idea of Halloween alive to generate over $10 billion in sales year after year. Whether you’re a child who’s infatuated with Hollywood monsters or a parent trying to please the neighborhood kids with mouth-watering treats, your cravings and anxieties are what keep the spirit of Halloween alive.
The History of Halloween and Trick-or-Treating
Ages ago, when summers were short and winters were dark and long, the Celtics in Ireland believed that there was one day a year when the season of life would meet the season of death. On this day, they believed that spirits would rise and walk amongst the living. Samhain (the Gaelic word for summer’s end, pronounced “SAH-win”) welcomed the harvest and marked the start of the dark winter ahead. Druid priests would attempt to foretell whether their villages would survive the winter while other Celtics would disguise themselves in animal hides and masks to avoid being snatched up and taken to the underworld. In an attempt to move the Celtic pagans from their ways, Pope Gregory the 3rd established “All Hallows Day” to honor all Christian Saints on November 1st. His plan somewhat backfired, creating “All Hallows Eve,” where both rituals were combined into a multiple-day celebration. This is where the name “Halloween” originated from.
Fast forward to the mid-19th century when millions of Irish immigrants came to the United States because of the potato famine. Their once-raging bonfires shrunk to contained fires in gourds (jack-o-lanterns), and trick-or-treating is thought to have been derived from the festivities leading up to Samhain. People would dress up in costumes and go door-to-door while singing songs to deceased ancestors and were greeted with cake as payment. Immigrants kept these customs, but the door-to-door sincerity grew sinister among the youth.
Samira Kawash wrote the article “Gangsters, Pranksters, and the Invention of Trick-or-Treating 1930-1960” to counter some original perceived views of how trick-or-treating came about and give an alternate view based on newspaper accounts and news at the time. She suggests that trick-or-treating was a complex power struggle between children and adults. What now seems like harmless fun was once widely viewed as demanding orders, juvenile tricks, and delinquent behavior. Print references in the early 1930s described “youthful tormentors” and “robbers” who would demand sweet treats or give the threat to play a trick on their home. Youth would travel around in “gangs,” demanding adults to be compliant. Homes that would ignore the knocking at the door would be faced with property damage or other pranks. While these pranks were usually harmless yet tedious to deal with, some pranks resulted in serious damage and injury. Even today, many communities continue to struggle with serious vandalism and violence on Halloween (such as Detroit’s Devil’s Night).
So how has trick-or-treating become more treats and less tricks? One critic says, “youth sold their rights to rebellion for some sugar in expensive wrappings.” By the end of the 1940’s, a new era for Halloween had begun. Tricksters were less destructive during the war, and destruction on Halloween was quieter. Most white US families started recognizing the holiday through its publicity in national publications such as Jack and Jill (1947) and American Home (1947). Not all adults were on board with the idea, though. Many objected to the thought of participating in “child’s play” and remained nervous about theft and vandalism.
1959 was the start of another era for Halloween and trick-or-treating. It was the year Dr. William V. Shyne, a California dentist, decided to play his own trick by giving hundreds of children coated laxatives. Thankfully the injuries were minimal, but the uproar planted fear in parents’ minds. The skepticism of destructive youth and “satanic” origins got overshadowed by the thought of dangerous strangers threatening children- shifting the narrative. While adults had different opinions on participating in trick-or-treating, most parents put their opinions aside to supervise their children and participate in the fun. By the early part of the twentieth century, Halloween became a nationwide holiday. Today trick-or-treating is almost all treats and no tricks- except by the companies that have roped US consumers into spending over $10 billion dollars on Halloween.
The Marketing of Halloween
With the fear of poisonous tasty treats dancing in parents’ minds, huge candy companies saw an opportunity to capitalize on their fears by offering “safe manufactured treats.” The individually-wrapped bite-sized candy we see during Halloween today was the widely accepted antidote to parents’ fears (not to mention the long shelf lives of preservative-packed candy). One of the earliest Halloween-themed candies marketed to consumers was the iconic candy corn from Brach’s Candy. Collectingcandy.com has historical records of their candy corn ads starting as early as 1953!
Brach’s Halloween candy ad through Wikimedia Commons
Many companies followed the Halloween phenomenon by morphing their own candy into “fun-sized” candy bars that guaranteed safety from tampering. Houses with homemade candy and goods were viewed (and still sometimes are) with skepticism and ridicule. Similar to the stigma around homemade clothing being “cheap,” companies were able to use a similar ploy and branding to leverage their “fun-sized” candy bars (homemade = boring, fun-sized = FUN!). Today, US citizens spend a total of over $3 billion on Halloween candy every year.
With candy companies trying to get their sweet share, the branding of Halloween candy started to shift. In the 1960s we were introduced to Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man. TV shows like The Addams Family and The Munsters made it big. People in the US were under a major monster craze. To make an even greater appeal, candy companies started packaging and shaping their candy in new spooky ways. Just Born candy company (the owner of Peeps) released Witchmallows in the 1970s, fluffy sugar-coated marshmallows resembling orange cats and pumpkins. Beich’s released spooky Laffy Taffy candy chews with bats, ghosts, and goblins on the individual wrappers. Other candy companies released monster candies, monster suckers, yummy mummies, gummy ghosts, and more!
Today we see the same trends with Halloween candy as in the 60s and 70s. But some companies have embraced generic autumn branding to cut losses incurred from unpurchased Halloween candy. Instead, they’ve dropped the ghouls and goblins and replaced them with autumn leaves and harvest decor. Resse’s mini peanut butter cups are sold in autumn wrappings and ghost shapes. Tootsie’s caramel apple pops have been a huge hit over the years, no matter the seasonality.
Halloween is the second-largest holiday after Christmas in the US. The winning combination of fear and sugar has created the perfect conditions to keep on selling. From Celtic pagans going door-to-door for cake, children running around in costumes for candy, or a parent trying to ensure the safety and exciting “spooky experience” for their child, one thing is for sure: sugar and spooky sell.