Already, even before the end of September, pumpkins are everywhere. Even the post office, which is a supposedly sane and serious federal establishment, has nasty electric flashing pumpkins behind the counter. The supermarket is full of them, and I have a horrible premonition that the checkout clerks are going to sprout witches’ hats when the great day comes.
It’s a strange thing this annual mania for pumpkins. They’re ugly things, and inedible without a ton of sugar. The larger the pumpkin, the uglier and more inedible it is. But this doesn’t matter at Halloween, when the rule seems to be: the bigger the better. Contests are held, and I read a report of a one-thousand-pound monster being grown somewhere in upstate New York, where they have plenty of space for that sort of thing.
Devotees of the pumpkin come in several types and levels of fanaticism. The most seriously deranged will drive miles out into the countryside to pick their own. These pickers out on the east end are true believers, motivated by the desire for authenticity. They need to get down in the dirt and pluck their chosen pumpkin right out of the ground. Over-eager husbands who are unused to agricultural labor get hernias and bad backs trying to drag the biggest, nastiest-looking fruit from the field into their cars. These are the same people who, if their chiropractor allows it, will be cutting their own Christmas trees in a few weeks
People who less serious about their pumpkins simply buy them at roadside stands, or at the supermarket. A few creep out at midnight to steal them from the fields. Only a tiny minority, certainly aliens or communists, don’t buy or steal pumpkins at all but sit grimly through the whole crazy season without a single pumpkin in the house.
Many Americans, being firmly rooted in the high-tech world of the twenty-first century, reject the agricultural fantasy, and buy plastic pumpkins – often with electric bulbs inside. In fact Halloween is increasingly a plastic festival. This is when the manufacturers get rid of all the nasty black, orange and green plastic that they can’t sell the rest of the year. Plastic skeletons, hanged corpses, witches, and vampires dance across the suburban landscape, as if we were still living in Salem in 1650. Ordinary suburban ranches are fixed up to look like a haunted house, with spider webs, blackened windows, bats, and green hands reaching out. On the fateful night itself, the costumed players will appear: chainsaw killers, Frankenstein monsters, mutants, ghosts, and (of course) witches. A tide of superstitious fantasy flows over the nation like chocolate sauce.
It’s a strange celebration: death and deformity, pumpkins and chocolate. No other nation understands it. Perhaps only the witches who fly on All Hallows Eve really understand it. For children, no explanation is necessary. Halloween is all about breaking rules, candy, and blackmail. The essence of Halloween is the ritual of legalized blackmail called Trick or Treat. In organized crime they call it Protection. In Washington it is called the Voluntary Political Contribution. In each case we are motivated to give for fear of unknown consequences.
In fact, politics are the key to the whole Halloween mystery. The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, deliberately established this bizarre festival just five days before the elections. Halloween is a mental preparation for the choices we have to make at the local, state and national levels: the superstitious faith, the wearing of masks, the belief in magic. On election day, surrounded by rotting pumpkins, discarded plastic costumes, and fat and queasy kids, we will be in exactly the right mood to choose our political leaders: choices which, let’s face it, are all tricks, and no treats.