If you're a kid, Halloween is a time to be scared of witches, werewolves, and the undead. If you're an adult, it's a time to be scared of child snatchers, serial killers, and easily offended members of the PTA. When children get frightened, they squeal, scream, or huddle under the covers. When grown-ups get frightened, they pass laws. Here's a quick, far from exhaustive list of the dubious ways the authorities are now policing All Hallow's Eve.
Misleading the parents. Frightening people is part of the point of Halloween, and maybe it's churlish of me to suggest the government shouldn't be able to do it too. But as fun as a good ghost story can be, I wish the authorities would refrain from spreading urban legends about the dangers of trick-or-treating. When courts or cops set up a free x-ray station for kids' candy, they send the message that we should really be worried about foreign objects in the loot.
We shouldn't. There are just a few scattered cases in the last half century of pins or needles being found in Halloween treats. The vast majority turned out to be pranks or hoaxes, and none led to more than minor injuries; your children are more likely to drown in a bucket than to be hurt by a blade in an apple or a candy bar. And for all the yarns you've heard about neighborhood supervillains plotting to put poison in their candy, there isn't a single recorded case of it happening. The closest anyone has found is a crime in 1974 when a boy's Pixy Stix was doused with cyanide. But the culprit turned out to be his own dad.
Yet no matter how many times people have tried to kill those scare stories, the tales keep shambling forward. At least one sheriff's department—in Washoe County, Nevada—offers its x-ray services not just to trick-or-treaters but to families "interested in getting their candy checked prior to handing it out." To protect against...what? Tampering at the supermarket? Should we get the local health department involved in this too? How about the USDA?
Hiding the sex offenders. In the last few years those traditional tales of poisoned apples have been joined by a different fear: that trick-or-treaters will be assaulted by pedophiles. It's an unlikely scenario, since trick-or-treaters rarely travel alone and are not ordinarily invited into strangers' houses. And sure enough, when a 2009 study in Sex Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment looked at when nonfamilial sex crimes against children take place, the authors concluded that "no increased rate on or just before Halloween was found, and Halloween incidents did not evidence unusual case characteristics." The researchers then questioned "the wisdom of diverting law enforcement resources to attend to a problem that does not appear to exist."
Nonetheless, authorities around the country have fought the phantom threat in a variety of ways, up to and including rounding up all the sex offenders in one Texas county and storing them in the Adult Probation Office for the evening. In Maryland, offenders have been required to post a paper pumpkin on the door with the message "NO CANDY AT THIS RESIDENCE." More frequently, jurisdictions have told offenders not to put up anything Halloween-related at all. "The main thing we're looking for is to make sure we do not have any type of Halloween decorations, anything that's going to attract the children to want to come to their house and to trick or treat there," one El Paso cop explained to KTSM-TV. The station then straight-facedly reported that "police say they hope a similar program will be implemented for the Christmas season." ("To stave off the rampant assaults of carolers, perhaps?" cracks the blogger Scott Henson.)
Kicking out the teens. The Samhein sex offender scare is an absurd diversion of police resources, but it won't have much impact on the kids themselves. Not so for rules imposing an age limit on the festivities. The Canadian Press reports that several U.S. cities have banned teenagers from trick-or-treating, rules that in some places date back at least as far as the '70s but in other spots have appeared more recently. Bellevue, Illinois, adopted its ordinance in 2008, the news agency informs us, after the mayor "heard from too many single mothers and senior citizens complaining they were frightened by 'six-foot-tall kids' showing up at their homes in search of candy."
The Bellevue law "also prohibits those over 12 years old from wearing masks in public any other day of the year." Because you can never be too careful.
Pretending it isn't Halloween. The under-twelves can still have their fun on Halloween night, but in many places they're no longer able to celebrate during the day. Schools across the country have refused to observe the holiday, while others have attempted to recast it as "Orange and Black Day," as "Fall-o-Ween," even as a "Literature Party." (Literature? A blogger at Unqualified Offerings explains: Most of the "costumes are based on characters in stories.")
Sometimes the schools are afraid of offending fundamentalists; sometimes they're afraid of offending Wiccans. And sometimes the change is just a sign that you're living in the age of No Child Left Behind. "To prepare even kindergarten-age children for a career of standardized testing, in-school parties of all kinds—along with naps, recess and field trips—are being cut back or phased out in many schools across the country," The Washington Post reported in 2004. And thus administrators are attempting "to abbreviate and homogenize classroom celebrations of Halloween, Christmas and Easter."
All these policies represent the heavily policed and professionalized side of our culture: the elements of American life where families are told to fear their neighbors, submit to surveillance, and trade in traditional pleasures for a homogenized facsimile of fun. The good news is that the fearmongers don't have a monopoly on the holiday, and that kids around the country can still enjoy the costumes, the candy, and the convivial custom of mumming around the block and begging for treats. "Despite our mounting fears and apoplectic media," Free-Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy recently wrote, Halloween "is still the day that many of us, of all ages, go outside. We knock on doors. We meet each other. And all that giving and taking and trick-or-treating is building the very thing that keeps us safe: community." It's not an x-ray machine at the courthouse that protects us, not an iPhone app for tracking sex offenders, not a state-issued pumpkin on a convict's door, not a super-sensitive schoolmarm who insists on calling the holiday the "Fall Festival." Just ordinary people who know their neighbors and want to share a night of fun.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press). This column first appeared at Reason.com.