Violence, Gentrification and Cultural Appropriation: What Makes Halloween so Political?

Alexandria Smith ’27
Staff Writer

Halloween is the most ancient of our American calendar traditions. It was a day to ward off the shrinking line between humans and the supernatural. To the Celtics, Halloween involved “propitiating the spirits of the dead.” So when did Halloween change into the commercialized mega-celebrated day it has now become? And how did Halloween turn into something of great political and social controversy?

Before the corporatization of the holiday in 1990, Halloween was a community celebration in which families made costumes by hand; ghosts, witches, and animals. The day itself was centered around children. But there was a shift away from this community tradition as Halloween became a capital landmark in the United States. Costumes began to be used as a racist tool to mock cultures. According to The Hill, “It wasn’t until the early 20th century … that costumes took on a different mood entirely, as people sought to portray themselves as other cultures and races than their own, wearing blackface to imitate African Americans or donning turbans and other symbols of what was once referred to as the ‘Far East’ and other ‘exotic’ destinations.” The capitalization and marketing of Halloween led directly to cultural appropriation through costumes.

From the 1980s to today, Halloween has become a day for parties and festivities, expensive outfits, and trick-or-treating in the most lavish neighborhoods. Due to our culture’s emphasis on corporate marketing, the holiday has become more than a cultural phenomenon — it’s an economic powerhouse. The 1990s marked a permanent change in the culture around Halloween cementing it as an unavoidable holiday.

As American society has become an increasingly corporate one, the political significance of Halloween has become more evident. According to a gentrification report by the Governing Archive, nearly 20 percent of neighborhoods with lower incomes and home values have experienced gentrification since 2000, compared to only 9 percent during the 1990s. The gentrification of low-income communities has led to an obvious phenomenon during Halloween, leading us to question: what correlation does gentrification have to Halloween?

Due to the profitability of the holiday, the practice of trick or treating now revolves around visiting the wealthiest neighborhood in hopes of finding larger candy bars and extravagantly decorated homes. These neighborhoods are often in gentrified small pockets of great wealth. Vice writes, “As the ritziest communities host hundreds of out-of-towners, others have seen a steep decline in local activity, creating a vacuum in the door-to-door economy.” Halloween has evidently stepped away from its community-based nature.

Halloween does not cause gentrification, but it does reveal the impacts of it. A key element of this phenomenon is the question of violence. Halloween is one of the most violent days of the year. The Los Angeles Police Department reports that the city of Los Angeles sees an average of about 150 more crimes on Halloween than on a normal day, a 26% increase, from data from 2014-2018. Over the course of four years, there was not a single incident of crime in Beverly Hills on Halloween and only a 0.2 in Bel Air, the two wealthiest areas in LA. In sharp comparison to Downtown LA which had a whopping 38.2 out of 100,on the crime scale of crimes per individual, east Hollywood and Santa Monica at 23.8.

Gentrification leaves low-income and middle-income areas more susceptible to crime as wealth is condensed in small communities. In these low-income areas there is drastically more violence, making Halloween unsafe for children in the area. This leads to the rush into wealthy neighborhoods bombarding streets with hundreds of families seeking to reap what the market tells them Halloween is meant to be. As the patterns of violence have changed, Halloween has changed with it. Hence, Halloween reveals the impact of gentrification on community building within a city.

On a holiday that is rooted in fear of both supernatural and unfamiliar experiences, Halloween often makes communities wonder who is considered an outsider. This can lead to assumptive classist and racist points of view. In gentrified predominantly white areas there have been reports of Black and brown children being turned away while trick or treating since the early 2010s. This occurrence in a “racially polarized city” further reveals the correlation between the impacts of gentrification on communities and the festivities of Halloween.

As the complexities of the history of Halloween — capitalization, violence, and increased gentrification — meet, it creates an intense melting pot for political and social complications. Halloween has grown to represent a time of fear in many communities, whether that be of violence or racism. Cultures are not costumes, and white privileged individuals should not represent themselves on this day in disrespectful manners to any race or culture. The United States has a dark history of racism in every crack. By furthering education about cultural sensitivity and history, we pave the way for a more inclusive society. By acknowledging at this time the connection between Halloween and broader issues of capitalization, violence, and gentrification we begin to explore the complexities of one of the most politically charged days of the year. Let us turn Halloween into a day of unity rather than division.

Image Source: Anna Grez ’27