Saturday, 30 October 2010

Halloween: Trick or Contemporary Legend

Halloween in the UK this year has seen a higher degree of debate about the history and transmission of the festival than I can recall from previous years. In particular there's been an attempt to trace its transatlantic migrations more accurately than the knee-jerk 'it's an American festival' of some of the tabloids.
I'm also struck by the extent to which some older local formulations seem to be reappearing in discussions of the chaos around Halloween. In a report on home repairs after Halloween pranks, Santander General Insurance refer to the damage done during 'mischief week'. (They reckon nearly a quarter of British households have experienced damage, which may be why my local council is enforcing a ban on selling flour and eggs to under-18s for the duration).
But, of course, the real meaning of Halloween is the Contemporary Legend ... I'm delighted to see a return of the 'doctored Halloween treat' story, with this report that LA County Police are warning parents of an increasing number of marijuana-laced treats. (This is a difficult legend, because of the hideous ostension attached to it historically).
In the story linked to here, I particularly like the vagueness about the products themselves. LA County Director Public Health Jonathan Fielding has apparently said they are a risk 'because of the lack of information regarding their manufacture', while the story recommends detecting them 'by smell'.
The real pointer to the legendary character of this report, though, comes in this succinct statement: 'Although the Sheriff's Department has never received a report of laced Halloween treats being distributed, it is nevertheless warning parents about this new potential threat.' You have been warned.


  1. Enjoyed that, thank you! I always liked Bonfire night more, and its link to Mischief day, but my life enjoys the Halloween /samhain / Equinox link (+ it is when we first got together). I loved that laced Halloween treat myth.

    I can remember as a child my dad was so against the idea of the "American" festival I never got educated about it, and I had a rather embarrassing encounter when I answered the traditional request/threat with the words "Trick, please" and then stared at them waiting to see what magic they would preform. Our friends in Bristol got egged and floured for going out trick or treating themselves and not being in to answer the door...

    I am trying to make an archive of old folklore in the Westcountry if you are interested - its here -

    I think I am going to enjoy following yours... More contemporary and original. I just have a BA in archaeology - not quite the same as having studied to Masters level in Folklore!

  2. Thanks very much for that. I'm interested in how people use old folklore archives and collections as part of their ongoing adaptation and development of traditions, like with the development of modern Wicca, so we may be working with the same stuff even where it looks different.

    There's lots written on spiked Halloween treats (the Razor in the Apple). I've enjoyed writings by Bill Ellis and Sylvia Grider on this. A classic article is Joel Best and Gerald T. Horiuchi, 'The Razor Blade in the Apple: The Social Construction of Urban Legends', Social Problems, 32.5 (1985), 488-499. It turns out Michael Pinney has put a pdf of it in his article on the legend: