Halloween was a kid’s thing. Stopping dressing was an important rite of passage. It meant that you were one step closer to becoming an adult.
Not anymore. Today, adults have become avid Halloween revelers, especially young adults.
In 2005, just over half of adults celebrated Halloween. Today that number has risen to over 70 percent. People between the ages of 18 and 34 participate in the highest rate, and they are also the biggest holiday spenders, spending more than twice as much on their costumes as older adults and children.
Halloween celebrations have also changed: fewer treats and more parties and pub crawls. Today, alcohol is as important as candy to the Halloween economy.
Why did this happen?
Some blame Millennials’ refusal to grow up and enter the âreal worldâ. But this is too simplistic an explanation. I have studied how young adults celebrate Halloween and what kind of relationship it might have with the changing standards and expectations of adulthood.
The Halloween embrace by young adults might have something to do with the fact that adulthood itself has changed. If Halloween has become more popular with adults, it’s because the traditional markers of adulthood have become less clear and less attainable.
The changing meaning of Halloween
Sociologists tell us if we want to understand a culture, look at its holidays. Christmas gift rituals shed light on the way we deal with social relationships. Thanksgiving holidays depend on a shared understanding of family and national histories.
Halloween, with its emphasis on identity, horror, and transgression, can tell us who we want to be and what we fear becoming.
Historian Nicholas Rogers has argued that many of the holiday trends and rituals are in fact tied to conflicting social values.
For example, razor sharp urban legends in the 1970s reflected cultural concerns about the loss of community and fear of strangers. More recently, debates about skimpy costumes tap into broader concerns about young girls growing too fast.
Halloween was also a holiday embraced by those who were not full members of society. Over a century ago Irish immigrants, who brought their Halloween traditions with them to America, used the celebration to strengthen community ties.
Initially, their Halloween traditions set them apart. But by assimilating, they spread the party to the rest of the country. In the 1950s, it had become a children’s night. Later, gays and lesbians made Halloween a space where their differences could be celebrated and not stigmatized.
The “emerging adult” and the space between
One could argue that today’s young adults live in a sort of purgatory.
Traditional markers of adult responsibility and independence – family, career, home ownership – have either been delayed or abandoned altogether, by choice or necessity. Transitions to adulthood have become uncertain, long and complicated.
In recent years, psychologists and sociologists have coined a term for this transitional stage of life, which typically spans the twenties and thirties: “emerging into adulthood.” According to these experts, characteristics of emerging adulthood can include exploration of identity, self-focus and feeling caught between two worlds. There is also a sense of wonder and possibility.
Others have a less optimistic view of the emergence of adulthood, describing it as a time of fear and anxiety about an unknowable future.
So why might an emerging adult be drawn to Halloween?
Obviously, Halloween costumes allow them to experiment and explore themselves and their identity. The possibilities are limitless. Witch? Couple of robots? Sexy robot? Emoji? Banksy’s shredded art? Young adults I’ve spoken to often identify this as their favorite part of a vacation – the chance to be, at least for one night, what they wish they were.
Costumes are a job of identity, but they are also quite simply a job. This is important in a world where many young adults are stuck in unsatisfying jobs. Culture critic Malcolm Harris argues that young adults – despite being highly educated and hardworking compared to older cohorts – rarely find jobs that match their educational qualifications and abilities.
During Halloween, hard work and creative thinking are important. For example, costume contests, in bars or online, offer people the opportunity to create costumes that combine humorous or timely cultural references with craft skills. You can do more than just participate in Halloween; you can “win it” with the best costume.
And young adults don’t do it alone. Some told me they would test different costumes on social media to see which one got the best response. Others will look to others online for inspiration.
In this way, Halloween becomes part of modern network culture, in which young adults use social media to navigate the world and make choices. Sociologists have found that many young adults build a âcollaborative selfâ by continually reaching out to others online to strengthen and assess their identities.
Halloween has always promised the chance to be creative and to become something else.
But by embracing the holidays, emerging adults are doing more than rejecting traditional adulthood. They play with identity in a way that puts their skills and cultural competencies to work. They define new ways of being – and becoming – an adult. And in the process, they’ve changed the way Halloween is celebrated.