Every Halloween, millions of surrogate zombies, vampires, and goblins take to the streets, looking to fill the fluorescent orange brainpans of their plastic pumpkins with individually wrapped, fun-sized candies. It seems like a custom immemorial, but trick-or-treating wasn’t always an inseparable part of Halloween: in fact, little more than 60 years ago, many Americans had never even seen a trick-or-treater.
While going door-to-door for candy may be a relatively new phenomenon, Halloween has always been about the things trick-or-treating represent: sugar and fear. In the ritual of trick-or-treating itself, though, U.S. candy makers have discovered countless ways to make money marketing both sweets and terror, to the tune of over $2.3 billion a year in 2011 alone.
Whether you’re a kid who loves monsters and gore, or a parent terrified of being egged for running out of caramels (or worse, seeing your child poisoned), U.S. candy makers have always been quick to respond with a candy that is custom-tailored to both your cravings and your anxieties. And why not? For a thousand years, Halloween has been all about eating sugar to assuage our fears.
Dating as far back as the ancient pagan Celtic festival called Samhain–in which the end of harvest coincided with the opening of a liminal window into the spirit world–October 31st has always been an amalgamated swirl of sweets and the supernatural.
These ancient Celts would use honey, and later sugar, to preserve their perishable food and prepare the bounty of the summer for the winter ahead. “Humans just instinctively want to prepare their bodies for the winter by eating sweets,” says candy expert and historian Beth Kimmerle, meaning we’ve had this perfect metabolic storm that has lead people to eat more sugar around the end of October.
As the Celts gorged themselves on crude jellies, sweetmeats, and candies, they would mask or blacken their faces to placate evil spirits–a practice that witnessed a resurgence in Scotland in 1895 when adult masqueraders carrying lanterns of hollowed-out turnips went door-to-door “guising,” or begging for cakes and fruits. By 1911, guising had reached North America, albeit as a seemingly rare occurrence in largely Irish and Scottish neighborhoods.
It wasn’t until 1934 that guising became known as trick-of-treating. The popularity of trick-or-treating briefly stalled during World War II due to sugar rationing, but by 1948, it was a common enough phenomenon that Jack Benny was doing jokes about it on his popular radio show, and by 1951, Charles Schultz was drawing the Peanuts gang wandering door-to-door wearing ghost sheets and witches’ hats.
Halloween was a thing people knew about, but before the 1950s, trick-or-treating simply wasn’t a part of most people’s Halloween celebrations. When the diminutive ghouls and ghosts did start showing up on people’s doorsteps, though, only sweets would placate them. Otherwise, you got egged , TP-ed, or worse.
It was this mass outbreak of high-fructose Halloween hooliganism that finally clued the candy companies into the notion that they might have a million dollar baby on their hands.
“In the 1950s, candy companies started realizing that this trick-or-treat thing might be a huge thing for them,” explains Kimmerle. “There was a rise of advertisements that talked about Halloween, and candy companies started marketing candy directly to moms. The message was: ‘If you buy the right candy, you won’t get tricked!'”
The candy that we know today–the tiny bars wrapped in specialty foils and packages–didn’t come about right away. In fact, the first Halloween-styled candy was designed not for the consumer, but for the shopkeepers to convince them to promote candy in their stores around Halloween. Companies like Curtiss (once-makers of Baby Ruth and Butterfinger), Lifesavers, and Beech-Nut would wrap wholesale boxes with Halloween-themed cellophane wrappers. The general public never saw these wrappers, though, because they were torn off before the candy reached the shelves.
There were exceptions. Jason Liebig of CollectingCandy.com notes that those companies already in the habit of promoting candy for Valentine’s Day and Easter reacted quickly to the trick-or-treating phenomenon. Brachs, for example, was advertising seasonal Halloween candy with jack o’lanterns and trick-or-treaters on the boxes as early as 1962. But for the most part, Halloween candy was no more ghastly, gross, or ghoulish than it was at any other time of year.
In 1964, Helen Pfeil, a Greenlawn, N.Y. housewife decided to hand out arsenic-laced candy buttons in an attempt to teach local teenagers that they were too old for trick-or-treating. Then on November 2, 1970, 5-year-old Kevin Toston from Detroit died after eating what initial reports identified as heroin-laced Halloween candy. It later turned out that the heroin never came from the candy, but by that point, no one was paying attention. The idea that sickos were poisoning candy to give to trick-or-treaters had been launched into the zeitgeist.
In a ghoulish twist, the notion that Halloween candy might be poisoned turned out to be great for candy makers. Concerned with safety, parents started telling their kids not to take any sweets that weren’t factory-wrapped, which meant that the homemade treats or loose candy that most houses had handed out in the past became objects of suspicion. The candy industry reacted with fun-sized candy bars: smaller, individually wrapped candies that a parent could be certain had not been tampered with.
“Candy companies realized that it wasn’t just about size, but about safety, which gave them this artistic license to create their own look and feel centered around Halloween. It had a profound effect on the industry,” says Kimmerle. “Now, everyone’s worried about their kids’ peanut allergies, but back then, it was poison and razor blades.”
Buoyed by the monster fad of the 1970s, the packaging of Halloween candy got increasingly weirder and wilder. Rodda, beloved makers of Marshmallow Peeps, released cat and pumpkin-shaped Witchmallows to stores. Topps released a bag of bubble gum shaped like a Haunted House that could be hung on the inside of your front door so the candy inside could be easily handed out to kids. The makers of Sugar Daddy came up with a bag of nugget-sized, individually wrapped treats that could be used as a ghoulish hand-puppet when empty.
In 1975, H.R. Nicholson–a maker of drinkable candy sold in wax packages, a la Nik-L-Nips–released the quaffable secretions of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman in vials and called them Monster Tears. And then, of course, there was Mr. Bones–little pieces of fruit candy that came in a tiny black coffin that could be assembled into an edible skeleton.
If the 70s was the era of groovy monster candy, then the ’80s and ’90s saw the rise of a new kind of Halloween treat. Early in the 1980s, future Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman joined chewing gum, candy, and card maker Topps, and immediately revolutionized candy shops around the country with a series of increasingly disgusting creations: Garbage Candy, Wacky Packages, and the Garbage Pail Kids. A couple years before Maus proved to the literary world that comics were worth taking seriously, Spiegelman proved to candy makers something else: grossness sells.
“In the late 1980s, candy makers realized that you could do more with Halloween than just seasonalize the packaging,” says Kimberle. “You could make this really gross Halloween candy and then sell it to kids all year round.” Parents hated it, of course, but kids love slime, organs, and sticky fluids. Once it was out there, gross candy wasn’t going anywhere.
It’s a trend that continues today. Check your local candy stores and you’ll find Halloween candies like gummi hearts, oozing edible eyeballs, Cadbury Scream Eggs, or chocolate covered brains filled with oozing red caramel that spurt when you bite into them.
There’s some awesomely gnarly stuff being sold, and for kids, the gloppier and grosser, the better.
Today, Halloween candy is big business. In 2011, $2.3 billion worth of Halloween candy according to the National Confectioner’s Association. Yet if there is a trend in Halloween candy design right now, it’s to escape the association with trick-or-treaters that turned bags full of fun-sized candy into a billion dollar business in the first place.
Candy makers are increasingly trying to generalize Halloween candy into something with a shelf-life past October 31st. Instead of wrapping the candy in orange, purple, and black foil, Hershey’s has released fall-themed assortments of Hershey’s Kisses that won’t be marked down to half-price come November 1st. Another example is Reese’s, who has recently abandoned the Halloween-themed palette and iconography on their Peanut Butter Packaging for something a lot less spooky (and a lot more autumnal).
“When it comes to the money Americans spend on the holiday, Halloween is second only to Christmas,” says Kimmerle. “But Christmas is a whole season, while Halloween is just a single day. Candy makers want to reach an audience bigger than just trick-or-treaters.”
Yet if there’s anything that the history of trick-or-treating or even Halloween shows us, it’s that sugar and fear are a winning combination. Whether you’re an ancient Celt facing the long nights of winter, when the spirits of the dead are rumored to roam; a kid running through the streets in a costume with his mouth full of gummi worms; or a mom, telling her children to only accept individually wrapped chocolates from name-brand candy makers, lest they be poisoned: candy sells better when it’s spooky.