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The Politics of Trunk or Treat
Nostalgia, idealism, and the policing of childhood
If you’re on Bluesky, then yesterday you may have noticed a wee moral panic over several users’ discovery of trunk or treat parties. Trunk or treat is, basically, the reinvention of traditional American “trick or treat” practices for a fully car-centric universe. Families gather in parking lots or similar places so that their children, fully costumed, can make a circuit of car (or SUV) trunks, which are decorated for the occasion.
This isn’t something that’s really in my wheelhouse, but it is notable that yesterday’s discourse was framed in the same sort of terms that “trunk or treat” coverage has been attracting for decades. In 2006, for instance, the New York Times covered the phenomenon in inimitable Timesian style:
Here in Garrison, and in suburban and exurban communities across the country, trunk-or-treating is the latest twist on the quintessentially American ritual of door-to-door candy-collecting, bringing Halloween from the uncertain streets to the safety of church and school parking lots, turning the backs of minivans and sport utility vehicles into the new front porch.
Trunk-or-treating — also known as Halloween tailgating — solves the rural conundrum in which homes built a half-mile apart make the simple act of ringing doorbells require some physical fortitude. Where neighbors are strangers, these community events substitute family-friendly entertainment for the unwanted risks of what lies behind each door.
Classic Times stuff here, reporting on Middle America like it’s a foreign country—and, I’m going to argue, accepting an off-the-cuff plausible explanation for a satisfying answer about what’s going on. (As I’ll note later, they did also get this right in the following paragraphs, so I am exaggerating my critique a bit here.)
So let’s get to the bottom of this—and discover the best estimates for the timing of Trunk or Treat’s origins (the mid 1980s), the best explanation for where it originated (LDS churches), and the reason why it’s become a big deal (playing on affective and social ties while providing an easily monitored substitute for a deeply unsafe or unwelcoming pedestrian-hostile built infrastructure).
Criticism of trunk-or-treating usually revolves around familiar axes. Trunk-or-treating is a perversion of neighborliness, because it extracts the neighborhood ritual of trick-or-treating from a fixed geographical referent (that is, your neighborhood). It’s too car-centric, because it represents a surrender of a pedestrian activity to car culture. And it’s too inauthentic, because it’s planned and seemingly caters to parents who love to go all out for Halloween.
These are all raw themes, particular the car culture one. Underlying many of these is the conservative (not in the political sense!) drive for children to recapitulate “natural” childhood rituals—that is, the rituals of our childhood. As one anti-trunk-or-treat article argues
If you went door-to-door as a kid (and you probably did), you might remember the effort it took to procure a full pillowcase. How many houses did you have to hit up to achieve Halloween satisfaction? At trunk-or-treat, it’s a quick jaunt between rows of cars to come up with copious amounts of candy. No effort necessary on the kids’ behalf. As childhood seems to get more and more passive, this doesn’t sit well with me. Rather than playing outdoors with neighbors, more and more children sit inside staring at screens on a daily basis. Now you want them to skip the sidewalks entirely and just make a quick loop through a parking lot? Hard pass.
The giveaway here is that at least some of the disapproval has to do with dashed parental (or vicariously parental) expectations that one will get to recapitulate one’s own childhood with one’s children. (Notably, whether or not children enjoy trunk-or-treating is not really among the complaints here!)
Explanations for why the custom has evolved (and by now, yes, it is a custom—just look at the number of events large enough to get listed in a community calendar in Austin in 2022 alone) vary. The “rural distance” argument is the one people tend to turn to first—of course this makes sense, the argument goes, it’s so hard to drive from house to house! As we’ll see, I don’t buy it.
Others turn to sociological explanations. In 2013, NPR focused its explanation on churches—that trunk or treating was a way to pacify Halloween:
It's that discomfort with some of Halloween's themes that first led churches to start trunk-or-treat events in the late 1990s, according to Halloween historian Lesley Bannatyne.
"A trunk or treat became a very gentle and kind and child-friendly way to deal with the fact that the church didn't approve of Halloween," Bannatyne says. "It's very similar to Halloween, and you don't give away any of the great stuff like costumes and candy, but you can control it and keep away the imagery that you don't like."
The Times had picked that explanation up in 2006 as well:
And for churches that had disdained Halloween as a pagan ritual, trunk-or-treating has become a safe alternative for parents — and pastors — who wish to keep a watchful eye on children, often encouraged to dress as biblical characters.
And then there are safety concerns, which both the Times and NPR pointed to. As one parent told the Times, “This is a way to celebrate Halloween with the whole family without any of us parents having to worry about whose house our kid is going to, or if the kid will get hit by a car or get lost in the woods.”
But, as is so often the case, nobody really knows for certain.
For various reasons, I have a Newspapers.com subscription, and I decided to see where the term first originated. The term becomes a lot more common in the mid-1990s, suggesting that the practice did indeed originate around that time (sometime around the mid-1980s seems likely, as it’s unlikely that the first attempts were recorded in a newspaper). I’m going to give you a long (but not exhaustive) sample just so you get a representative flavor:
The Chico (California) Enterprise-Record (November 1, 1989) reported that “Five congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints put on a “trunk or treat” in the parking lot of the church on East Avenue; it was reported as being the second year of the event
The Deming (New Mexico) Headlight ran a photo of a trunk-or-treat party at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (November 1, 1990)
The Sacramento Bee has a description of an event provided by a mother of 5 (October 27, 1990) that describes “trunk-or-treat” at a church: “we know where [the candy’s] coming from, so we know it’s safe, and they’re not out on the streets”
The Times Record News (Wichita Falls, TX) covered “Churches offering tricks without Halloween tricks” (October 30, 1992), including a “Trunk or Treat” activity at the Park Place Christian Church. “We are doing it because parents are real uncomfortable about letting their kids go out into the community.”
The Tulsa (Oklahoma) World announced a “Trunk or Treat” at the Gracemont Baptist Church on October 24, 1994
The Homer (Michigan) Index announced a Methodist-Presbyterian joint Trunk or Treat on October 18, 1997
The Kansas City Star (October 18, 1997) records an announcement for a “trunk or treat fall festival” at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection
The Odessa American (October 18, 1997) has a similar announcement for the Westminster Presbyterian Church, as does the Charlotte Observer (October 19, 1997) for the Polkville Baptist Church
The Kansas City Star (January 1, 1999) records benefits at Cerner as including a “trunk or treat” activity (“trick-or-treating in the company parking lot”, it explains).
The Thousand Oaks Star (September 30, 1999) announces that the Simi Covenant Church will host a “Trunk and Treat” car show “in which teens and adults can decorate the trunks for their cars to compete for a prize” and “Youngsters will go trick or treating from trunk to trunk.”
The Sacramento Bee (October 3, 1999) reports that “The familiar neighborhood trick-or-treating of children…has been given a twist for the past few years by the Presbyterian Church of Fair Oaks. It’s called Trunk ‘n’ Treat…church members will again decorate car trunks and van tailgates with Bible themes [and] provide theatrical narration for inquisitive youngsters”.
The Sioux Falls Argus-Leader announced a “Trunk or Treat” at Trinity Baptist Church on October 8, 1999
The West Carroll (Louisiana) First United Methodist Church announced its 3rd annual Trunk or Treat on October 13, 1999: “Sadly we know Halloween has in some places become dangerous. We wish to provide a safe place for the children of the community.”
These are just a smattering, and I didn’t build up a dataset, but a few things seem pretty clear:
this was a church-led movement—almost all of the 1990s references are for churches
this was not a rural movement—although Sapulpa, Oklahoma, had a “Trunk-or-Treat” at its First Baptist Church in 1997, the cities that are coming up tend to be medium-sized places (like Sacramento), regionally large cities (Sioux Falls), or suburbs of decent-sized metros (Thousand Oaks).
the origins may well lay not just with “churches” but specifically with the LDS Church
Satanic panic was not a major stated goal (compared to, say, the emphasis on “All Saints Day” as a Halloween alternative). This did get mentioned, but only occasionally. Rev. Mark Irons, pastor of Park Place Christian Church in Wichita Falls, told the Times Record News that he felt Halloween could be satanic in nature. “We don’t confront it directly, we subtly direct the kids in a more positive way,” the pastor said. “I feel like the more attention you give the occult, the more credit you give it.”
Rather, the advertisements tend to focus on family-friendliness and, above all, safety.
This seems like a good enough set of stylized facts. And to add one more: trunk-or-treating really seems to have broken through in the mid-2000s, becoming most commonly mentioned in the mid-2010s. (After that point, it declines, but my guess is that has more to do with the death of newspapers.)
So why did this custom break through? The theological reasons seem less important than the sociological ones. Trunk-or-treating requires a lot of resources, including, of course, access to a parking lot and cars. It would likely be easier to start this in a community that is not geographically located (if it were, then traditional trick-or-treating would be easier) but which has strong social ties and a lot of children. Viewed in this light, the theological purposes of displacing Halloween (which has rarely sat well with doctrinaire members of major U.S. faiths) would seem more like an added attraction to pastors and others than the point of the event. The fact that trunk-or-treating is more easily surveilled in ideological terms, then, is less important than that it’s easily surveilled in the “keeping kids away from danger” (imagined, as with candy scares, or very real, as with cars) sense.
There’s also no reason to support a rural origin story here. People act based on material interests and social ties. Churches and other institutions, like workplaces, offer varying mixes of those in a way that “rural” as an explanatory factor doesn’t.
The fact that trunk-or-treating has escaped containment and gone secular suggests that the affordances of the practice are in no way tied to rurality. Indeed, it’s suburban or postwar urban places that would provide the optimal environment for this to bloom. Those are neighborhoods that were not built to be welcoming to pedestrians, and where the anomie of suburban life cut across the sorts of thin ties that make places actually hospitable (yes, I’m Jane Jacobs-ing this and calling the suburbs less hospitable than traditional urban spaces). Furthermore, middle and upper middle class families have the means to supply collective club and private goods to substitute for deficient public goods—there’s a reason that Mormons and mainline Protestant churches show up first. Finally, some part of this is likely driven not just by physical safety but by preferential social sorting: you want kids to mix with known populations, not unsafe or subjectively undesirable ones.
For institutions beyond churches, trunk-or-treating has a lot of advantages as well. If you’re running a school, a company, or a parks and rec department, you already have access to a parking lot; the guests can supply everything else. So you need capital but not operating funds—always a win for institutions that aren’t using their parking lots on the weekend. It can build social ties among your community at low cost—also a win! And, crucially, it lets you do something seasonally appropriate without it being a religious festival—trunk-or-treating was frequently billed as or alongside “fall festivals”. Nobody’s religion objects to fall festivals, even if they do object to specific Halloween festivals. On that score, at least, trunk-or-treating is more inclusive. (Indeed, some advocates point out that trunk-or-treating is specifically more inclusive of folks with accessibility issues, and others host overtly inclusive trunk-or-treating events.)
And the safety issue is really, really big. The overwhelming majority of Americans think traditional Halloween trick-or-treating is unsafe—only 4 percent view it as “very safe” for children to go trick or treating by themselves (a la Charlie Brown).
Now, despite all of this, I share the aesthetic disdain for trunk-or-treating. I’m a pro-density YIMBY guy, and I want people to be able to live in walkable neighborhoods where they can have reasonable confidence that consumer-grade monster trucks won’t crash into their bodies.
It seems rather clear that we don’t live in this world. More than half of Americans live in suburban areas. Even our urban areas, like New York City, are run by city agencies that are openly hostile to the idea that children should be allowed to walk anywhere. And although I find some objections to Halloween personally unconvincing, why should my religious convictions trump others’ desire to not participate in a holiday they find distasteful or worse? In other words, why not have trunk-or-treats, or some similar accommodation to our big, sprawling, multicultural country?
What’s interesting to me in the context of this newsletter, moreover, is the degree to which this is a political fight. Not party-political, to be sure, but one that’s laden with the balances of disdain and power that animate real politics. The reaction by certain segments of online Millennials to the (recurrent) discovery that trunk-or-treating is a thing speaks volumes about how they think society should be organized; the assumption by at least a few critics that the churchly origins of the practice makes it sus says a lot, too. (A custom is more than its origins, people!) And the fact that this is a practice that can be Columbused—look, we’ve discovered something that’s existed for generations (yes, literally)—also says something about the segmentation of society along geographical, class, and child-having lines.
And, finally, this has real implications for policy. American policy does not create spontaneous, organic neighborhoods that are welcoming for communities and the children who exist in them. The very notion that it could do this does not compute—the American state sees drivers, rights-of-way, vehicles, and so on, but not society or youngsters. (Sometimes, as with the NYPD tow truck, this is tragically literal.) And so families and parents are caught in a cultural crossfire where their adaptions to these facts deviate from social scripts that were developed for conditions that no longer apply.
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