Later this month, police officers will fan out across cities and towns nationwide, urging shopkeepers to adopt a cheerily discriminatory policy like the one that earned Redner’s Market in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, viral fame last year: “Due to Safety Concerns we are not allowing the purchase of Eggs by minors. 10/24/15 thru 11/01/15. Thank you, Management.”
Though it was likely the store manager’s perceived vigilantism that propelled this particular notice to momentary stardom, such seasonal prohibitions—encouraged by law enforcement officials from New York to Chicago and beyond—have become increasingly common in recent years. The rationale? Young people buying eggs during Halloween week don’t have omelets in mind: Don’t be an egg-cessory to crime.
The custom of egging houses, cars, and other objects on or around October 31, just one of many acts of mischief associated with Halloween, likely has roots in the long English history of eggs used as weapons of humiliation—against medieval prisoners in the stocks, lousy Elizabethan actors, or, in every era, politicians who’ve fallen out of favor. For this purpose they are uniquely useful: Lightweight, portable, and easily concealed before launch, eggs are slimy, sticky, bright yellow, and sometimes smelly upon impact, and their ick factor can be enhanced by freezing them or letting them rot beforehand.
But police these days say that the crackdown on egging is about more than preventing pricey dry-cleaning bills, property damage, or even blinding by a stray shell to the eye: Eggs, the reasoning goes, can also kill. In 2010, the New York Times reported that, since 1984, 24 people in New York alone had died or suffered serious injuries in stabbings, shootings, beatings, or accidents linked to “egg-throwing confrontations around Halloween.”
If keeping yolks from youths can save even one life, one might argue, then why not give it a shot? No one—and especially not teenagers, with their tragically underdeveloped risk-assessment abilities—deserves to die in an egg fight that escalates to a shootout. But from another perspective, the draconian egg bans seem a little short-sighted—the latest in a series of efforts to tame a holiday whose raucousness has long served an important societal purpose.
Pranks have always been a part of the odd patchwork holiday that is American Halloween, a commercialized American pastiche of various Old World observances thought to date all the way back to the ancient Celtic new year and harvest festival of Samhain. Some Samhain customs, like lighting bonfires and making offerings to ward off dark forces and evil spirits as summer gave way to winter, influenced the development of medieval rituals for All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Over time, traditions for the heady Hallowtide period, when everyday rules were suspended, came to vary considerably throughout the British Isles. Popular activities included burning effigies, baking “soul cakes” to give away in exchange for prayers for deceased loved ones, carrying hollowed-out turnip lanterns representing souls held in purgatory, begging for food or money in exchange for prayers or performances, and reading romantic fortunes in apple skins and kale stalks. Dressing up and playing tricks were common, too, especially among youngsters acting out the imagined escapades of roving hobgoblins. They stole crops, made blow darts of cabbages, broke doors and took gates off hinges, blocked up chimneys, and generally made a lot of noise.
The spirit of creative knavery, carried on waves of immigration to the U.S. during the nineteenth century, found a new home here, with the holiday quickly morphing from an ethnic religious observance to a mainstream secular romp in which young revelers did a lot worse than throwing eggs—ripping out vegetable gardens, tipping over outhouses, tearing up sidewalks, and putting all manner of objects (barrels, wheels, wagons, gates, umbrellas, and milk cans) on roofs. For Halloween in 1900, University of Michigan medical students stole cadavers and propped them up around campus.
Samhain was what anthropologists call a liminal festival—a time between light and darkness, when the veil to the supernatural world was momentarily lifted an inch—and the thrill of flouting social norms, even if just for a night, became an important part of modern Halloween, too. If American adolescents have always been drawn to spooky hijinks, it could be because they also, like late-summer nights or souls trapped in purgatory, are betwixt and between, neither one thing nor quite the other. And in every era, adults have tended to alternate between fearing them and feeling for them, between laying down the law and embracing that topsy-turvy sense of loosened boundaries.
In 1905, the New York Herald ran a cartoon drawing of Halloween carnage with the caption “Halloween boisterous? Oh! Please don’t mention it. You were a youngster once on a time yourself.” Magazines like the Ladies Home Journal fired back in the 1920s with detailed instructions for hosting genteel costume parties at home, with parlor games and factory-printed decorations. But the pranking persisted, as the poverty of the lean interwar years gave new life to old All Souls’ begging traditions and lent a note of class warfare to ever-more raucous acts of spirited vandalism (think rock throwing, tire slashing, and even arson). Sometimes kids were hurt or (more rarely) even killed in the melee, so churches, schools, boys’ and girls’ clubs, and other community groups went to work organizing dances, costume contests, and other “safe” alternatives to prowling the streets. It was first of several battles for the soul of Halloween.
“Trick-or-treat” was polite society’s most potent antidote to pranking culture: the phrase first appeared in print in a 1939 American Home article urging ladies to gently bribe would-be vandals by inviting them inside for tea and doughnuts—and in the prosperous post-World War II years, helped along by the growth of candy companies freed from wartime sugar rationing, the family-centered practice of sending costumed little ones around for sweets all but supplanted the older tradition of making a ruckus. With the addition, in 1950, of little orange boxes that children carried to collect donations for UNICEF, Halloween was as wholesome and non-threatening as it would ever be.
Those who believed in Halloween-inspired pranking as an adolescent rite of passage were horrified. Sociologist Gregory P. Stone argued in the American Quarterly that giving treats to children who were unprepared to carry out even the mildest “tricks”—like egging or pumpkin snatching—turned urchins into self-centered little consumers who expected to be rewarded for very little work. In a tender elegy for his own youthful sprees, Ken Macrorie wrote in The North American Review: “Like others of my generation I have for twenty-five years sat around smugly as the night of witchery and pranks was slowly debilitated and its heart finally ripped from its body.”
The critics of “sanitized” Halloween couldn’t have known, of course, that fresh mayhem was right around the corner. In the 1970s, reports of razors, drugs, poisons, or needles allegedly hidden in candy by malicious strangers dealt a serious blow to the presumed safety of trick-or-treating, and adults once again focused their energies on organized gatherings where closely supervised children could neither consume poison nor throw eggs. (A 1985 California State University study of 76 incidents of candy tampering reported in the media between 1958 and 1984 found that very few caused serious injury and almost none were actually perpetrated by strangers, but it hardly mattered: Fear of Halloween sadists came to stand in for a host of broader parental anxieties about perceived dangers ranging from child abuse to drugs and AIDS.) Meanwhile, amid economic decline and rising crime in many inner cities, Halloween vandalism—not just egging but also the serious stuff—returned with a vengeance: Detroit became infamous for arson attacks on “Devil’s Night,” suffering 297 fires on a single evening in 1984.
Our current egg bans—broken windows policing vigorously enforced on a night when there’s guaranteed to be a lot of glass—are part of the legacy of this tumultuous period. But I wonder if, in depriving today’s young people of the ragamuffin’s historic nonlethal projectile of choice, we’re missing some larger point—about the scourge of gun violence in our time, maybe, or about the ways in which the teen years can leave so many feeling adrift, like spirits doomed to wander the earth. Every era brings with it its own witches and ghosts, and what scares us on Halloween says a lot about what we worry about the rest of the year. As Ken Macrorie put it back in 1964, “Unexpected, frightful forces have always been at work in our world and in ourselves. We have not by sterilizing Hallowe’en exorcised evil.”
Viewed in that light, trying to prevent urban stabbings and shootings by restricting access to a breakfast staple can seem a little like blaming decaying Detroit infrastructure on the Celts and their harvest bonfires. Maybe we should just let the kids throw their eggs.