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Halloween For Adults: A Scary History

For Halloween 2014, the National Retail Federation predicts, some 75 million adults will put on costumes. Reuters is reporting that haunted houses for adults are in demand this year, and some 20 percent of celebrants over the age of 18 plan to visit one.

Are adults adulterating Halloween?

"Adults have hijacked Halloween," the Chicago Tribune reported in 2013. "Two in three adults feel Halloween is a holiday for them and not just kids," Forbes opined in 2012, citing a public relations survey.

True that when the holiday was imported from Celtic nations in the mid-19th century — along with a wave of immigrants fleeing Ireland's potato famine — it was essentially a younger person's game. But a little research reveals that adults have long enjoyed Halloween — right alongside young spooks and spirits.

Revelers And Rabble-Rousers

Back in the mid-19th century, new Americans introduced to these shores new games like bobbing for apples and harmless pranks, such as taking a neighbor's garden gate off its hinges, according to a National Geographic report. "Young pranksters wore masks, so they wouldn't be recognized."

The pranks turned more sinister, and by the 1930s, young people of many origins were threatening to vandalize stores and homes. On Halloween in 1933, "at the height of the Great Depression," writes Jonathan Zimmerman in the Christian Science Monitor, "hundreds of young men overturned automobiles, sawed down telephone poles, and taunted police."

Eventually, the rabble-rousers began asking for sweets, threatening tricks unless they received treats.

Twentieth-century consumerism — candy and costumes and decorations — helped reduce the vandalism, Jonathan tells NPR. So Halloween became "less of an adolescent night and more of a kiddie night."

Frightfully Fun

But throughout the history of Halloween in America, adults have participated right alongside young people — wearing costumes and playing parlor games.

In the 1870s, members of Caledonian Clubs — Scottish heritage groups — and other Celtic celebrants staged Halloween parties in various cities across the country. They played games with stalks of cabbage and bouncing nuts. At one soiree in New Britain, Conn., the Hartford Courant reported, "refreshments were served and games indulged in peculiar to the festival and the people observing the same, closing with 'Auld Lang Syne.' "

Jonathan, who teaches history at New York University, tells NPR that in the early 20th century, "there were silent movies and books about Halloween for adults."

Adult parties remained popular after World War II, despite the increased focus on children. A 1962 Halloween bal masque in Chicago drew 600 adults, decked out in costumes and dancing to jazz music, the Daily Tribune reported. In 1974, according to the Los Angeles Times, a hospital group staged a Halloween fete for adults ages 35 to 55 that included square-dancing and costumes.

Washington, D.C., has a long tradition of otherwise mature people hiding behind goofy masks and expecting free stuff. One memorable Halloween, in 1997, adults dressed in costume and stood outside the White House as the President Bill Clinton "Investigation Committee," The Washington Post reported. "Outfitted as ghouls, prisoners and the first couple, the group members gave out candy and fake money and posed for bemused tourists."

The nation's capital "always has a high old time on Halloween," the city's newspaper explained way, way back in 1913, "and among those taking leading roles in the hilarity will be found statesmen, diplomats, society leaders, admirals, generals, judges and bankers."

It is the one night a year, the 1913 Post article continued, "when a perfect lady can don masculine attire and promenade the streets without fear of arrest; and this year men who have a penchant for disguising themselves in costumes of feminine attire will have the additional privilege of reveling in slit skirts."

Adults drinking, carousing, cross-dressing: Sounds like Halloween in America a century later — circa 2014.

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