An often-unacknowledged Halloween ritual, one nearly as sacred to the holiday as the consumption of candy or the carving of jack-o-lanterns, is the tradition of shamelessly lying to children.
“Oooh, what a scary ghost,” an enthusiastic adult will tell a trick-or-treater draped in a sheet. “Are you a real werewolf?” they’ll ask a kid whose costume consists of plastic fangs and painted-on whiskers. “Good thing there’s no full moon tonight!”
The more self-aware of these faux-monsters, cognizant of the fact that they’re fooling no one, will endure these doorstep pleasantries as a price to be paid for free candy. But often, the younger and more wide-eyed among them will beam beneath their masks, reveling in the belief that they are, in fact, scary.
Here’s the thing, though: They are, in fact, scary.
Okay, maybe not scary scary, not in the Halloweeny, ghouls-and-goblins kind of way. But research has shown that dressing up and traveling in packs—two things kids do in abundance on this particular holiday—can make them a little bit, well, monstrous.
In one 1976 study, for example, psychologists covertly observed the behavior of more than 1,000 trick-or-treaters at 27 homes in Seattle. Inside the doorway of each house was a similar setup: one bowl filled with candy and one bowl filled with pennies and nickels, both placed on a low table near the entryway. In each case, a researcher would answer the door and chat with the children standing outside, sometimes asking their names, sometimes letting them stay anonymous. After instructing the kids to take only one candy apiece, the researcher would announce that she had to return to her work in the other room, where she would watch through a peephole.