In many ways, Halloween is the most American of holidays: secular, irreverent, and unashamedly consumerist. And as with many American cultural products, it has become a wildly successful export. Starting in the 1970s, American baby boomers teaching English abroad began exposing people around the world—many of whom already had autumn harvest traditions of their own—to pirate costumes, candy corn, and plastic pumpkins. Today the pitch is often more direct, as rapidly expanding global brands such as Disney and McDonald’s foment universal Halloween longing with movie tie-ins and Happy Meal toys. The requisite Halloween episode of every American sitcom—as potent a Westernizer as jeans or Coca-Cola—has also helped spread the holiday by providing how-to manuals for trick-or-treating and dressing up. Today, countries from Japan to Ukraine have embraced American Halloween and its customs.
But even jack-o’-lanterns can sow discontent. In her new book, “Trick or Treat? A History of Halloween,” author and Halloween enthusiast Lisa Morton catalogs the strange and sometimes violent ways people the world over have reacted to our spookiest export. She spoke to Ideas from the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood, where she works as a bookseller.