Written by Todd DePastino

For much of our history, Halloween wasn’t about candy and costumes. It was about vandalism. All that changed in World War II, when Americans invented trick-or-treating.

World War II era Paper-mache jack-o’-lantern

Paper-mache jack-o’-lantern (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian)

Several Octobers ago, I woke up, looked out the window and saw pumpkins smashed, some decorations strewn about the street, and my neighbor’s two-year old Bradford pear tree snapped at the lower trunk like an autumn cornstalk, its still-green crown lying by the curb.

“Ah, good,” I said to my young daughters, “someone has done their research on the history of Halloween.”

They rolled their eyes and ignored me, hoping to ward off the inevitable history lecture to follow. It didn’t work.

“For much of our history, Halloween wasn’t about trick-or-treating or going around in costumes,” I said, “it was about vandalism. Halloween celebrates the dark side, the side we reject and fear. Mischief making has historically been a part of that. If you look at newspapers from 80 or 90 years ago, you’ll see very little about costumes or treats and a lot about tricks, especially kids causing problems, but sometimes grown-ups, too.”

I stopped there, sparing the kids my theory about how WWII changed Halloween into the holiday we know today.

I haven’t done any research on it, but others have, and, by piecing together the work they’ve done, I think I could make a strong case that World War II stopped the customary vandalism and prepared the ground for costumed trick-or-treating, which flourished only after the war was over.

World War II era halloween cartoon

San Diego Union, October 25, 1942

The first Halloween during WWII was in 1942, when the nation was in full-tilt war production, and millions of men were in uniform. Children and teenagers were suddenly set free from adult supervision, as mothers and fathers spent more time working or away from home all together.

There were widespread fears of juvenile delinquency, drug use (marijuana was a particular concern), and criminal behavior. Fear, indeed, was a dominant emotion during the war years, and a powerful one at that. The ordinary vandalism one might expect on Halloween now seemed to portend greater crimes, a young generation out of control, and disintegrating social controls. Halloween must be stopped!

World War II Halloween advertisementMany communities did, in fact, cancel Halloween that year.

But some shrewder folks saw an opportunity to co-opt, rather than ban, the holiday by hosting costume parties, dances, and other kid-centered activities that would lure the would-be delinquents off the streets and into safer, supervised environments. (Still not much candy available, though. Sugar, after all, was rationed.)

It worked. Halloween vandalism fell off in 1942, and after the war, neighborhoods hosted a kind of roving festival for kids called “trick-or-treating.”

So, this year if you run across some smashed pumpkins, consider them mild throwbacks to a darker version of a holiday that only those born well before World War II still remember.