28 Oct

Rapping at my neighbor’s door

“Halloween Fears” in the Harrisburg Patriot-News (October 28, 2010).

“Suddenly there came a tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” Edgar Allan Poe penned these words in “The Raven,” the story of a lonely man hidden inside his home, so distraught over the loss of his beloved Lenore that an intruding raven sends him into hallucination. The story is replayed each October in our own sad interpretation of the poem.

Today, we are haunted by stories that Halloween is dangerous. Schoolteachers distribute leaflets promoting Halloween protocol. Reporters deliver their annual how-to articles on safe trick-or-treating. Such fears, advertised each October, are just as fictional as the ones that come wrapped in hockey masks and prosthetic fangs.

Joel Best, chair of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, has scanned newspapers for more than four decades in attempting to track instances of tampered Halloween candy. During this time, Best has found no evidence that any child has ever been killed or seriously injured from the candy.

Five deaths from tampered candy have been reported, but follow-up stories concluded that four were the result of other causes. The one verifiable tampering case, in fact, involved a boy whose own father had poisoned his Halloween goodies. And that was in 1974.

Even though the threat isn’t real, our fears are enough to decimate one of the few great community days of the year. It seems that our front doors see much less traffic on Halloween than in years past.

Years ago, as a young Spider-Man, gangster or ninja, I would join the throngs of masked goblins in the neighborhood for a night of rapping. Pillowcase in hand, I loved the excitement. The streets were alive with the chatter of neighbors, the creaking of doors and the musical notes of doorbells. Sure, sugar was the primary goal, but a sense of community came along with it.

Rap-rap. “Oh look, hon, it’s the Dolan boys. Wait a minute until Mrs. Smith comes, guys. She’ll love the costumes!”

Rap-rap. “Look — it’s the devil, He-Man and a ninja! Tell your parents we said hello, fellas!”

Rap-rap. “Come on in,” the vampire said, leading me through the most famous haunted house in the neighborhood, appropriately across the street from a cemetery.

That haunted house is no more, but it’s just as well, for today’s trick-or-treaters wouldn’t dare set foot into someone’s home. They’re better trained than that. “Stay on the front steps where I can see you,” our children are told. “And say ‘thank you.’”

Our homes have become like that famed haunted house in my childhood neighborhood — scary places that we don’t dare to enter. Like Poe, we’ve created a vision of fears.

We fear the unknown, and if we don’t know our neighbors, then we begin to fear them. If we were to get to know the people in our neighborhood, these fears would dissipate.

In the last two decades we’ve created countless ways to keep ourselves hidden behind our own chamber doors — the Internet, home entertainment systems, high-tech home security, attached garages.

Getting to know our neighbors is no longer a high priority. Sure, our homes are wonderful retreats, but they could be so much more. They could be places to share as well. We live in neighborhoods, and too often those neighborhoods lack what we look for in a home: community.

Perhaps if we were to realign those priorities and escape from our insular lives, then maybe we’d rediscover that community. Or maybe we don’t want to, and so we buy into the myth of poisoned candy as an excuse not to make the effort at community.

Even if I recognize the kid behind the little Harry Potter getup when he comes to my door, I probably won’t see him again until next Halloween. And perhaps I won’t see him even then. Unless, of course, I go gently rapping, rapping at my neighbor’s door.