The greatest opposition to Halloween today, however, comes not from fearful parents, politically correct posses, or the foes of consumerism but from the religious right. Christian conservatives see the holiday as nothing less than the celebration of Satan and have set out to exorcise it. Some churches stage “trunk or treat” parties: Parishioners in the parking lot hand out candy from the trunks of their cars and invite children to step into the church for a party. A less benign custom is the dramatized glimpse of hell. Congregations stage “mortality plays” featuring teenage girls undergoing bloody abortions, AIDS victims dying agonizing and unredeemed deaths, and businessmen who didn’t have time for Jesus burning in hell. In 1996 The Wall Street Journal reported that some 300 variations of these lurid portrayals of the wages of sin were intimidating more than 700,000 potentially savable souls, and the number was still growing.

But if the religious right would like to do away with Halloween, mainstream America wants to expand it. One method is the mailing of the holiday. Merchants dress up their stores and salespeople and invite children into the mall to celebrate. Parents, fearing sabotaged treats and possible violence elsewhere, gladly deliver their progeny to temperature control and security patrols. The message is clear: You may not be able to trust your neighbor but you can put your faith in your local Starbucks.

Over the years Halloween has shown an enduring malleability and a terrierlike tenacity to survive religious persecution, class prejudice, Victorian politesse, and consumerist inflation. Still, all the adaptability and advertising and marketing in the world couldn’t keep Halloween alive if Americans weren’t yearning for what it has to offer. Candy Day, energetically touted in the early part of the twentieth century, never sent the nation out to buy boxes of sweets for loved ones on the second Saturday in October. Why have Americans, so admirably skeptical and adamantly opposed to adopting other holidays, taken to their hearts this originally scary, often silly festival? Many say it reminds them of their childhood, which baby boomers are notoriously reluctant to relinquish. And maybe it reminds some others of the childhood they wish they’d had. Since people don’t go home for Halloween as they do for Thanksgiving and Christmas, there is less likelihood of parental disappointment, sibling squabbles, free-floating depression, and the other symptoms of the disquiet we are told afflicts America’s families. Moreover, though recently cornered by adults, Halloween is still identified with children, and while our society may quarrel over the expensive realities of raising children, like health care and education, it cherishes the idea of childhood. But perhaps the greatest attraction of the holiday is that it no longer has any reason for being. It is not a night to worship the God of our choice, honor the dead, celebrate the nation’s past, take stock for the future, or woo a loved one. It is simply an occasion for fun. Organized activities permit safe and sanitized rebellion. Costumes camouflage identity, blur status, and change gender. Masks provide a moral holiday.

For one night a year, we can act out whims and realize fantasies. Men can be women, children adults, milquetoasts heroes, good girls bad, devils saints, and vice versa. For a single night we all can star in the roles of our choice. The secret of Halloween’s success is that it is more than a holiday. It is a brief and titillating vacation from our lives and ourselves.