Would less door-to-door trick-or-treating and more community Halloween events decrease or increase social interactions?

If Halloween is indeed evolving away from neighborhood trick-or-treating (good discussion here), are the replacement or alternative or additional events in downtowns, at churches, and activities organized by other groups leading to more or less community and social interactions? Thinking out loud:

-Going door-to-door often involves interacting with people who are near you in physical proximity. Even if neighborhood interactions are declining, people would be more likely to run into each other at other times just because they live near each other.

-Going to centralized Halloween events in other locations means more people might gather together. But, their interactions might be limited. Perhaps it depends on what commonalities people at the event may share – a church event could involve a number of core community members as could a downtown event where local luminaries or figures are involved. On the other hand, community or organized events could involve more people just dropping in and out after acquiring candy and a lower likelihood of later interactions.

In both cases, the practice of getting candy could do little to build community if (1) candy is the only goal and (2) the likelihood of subsequent interactions is limited. It would be easy to turn Halloween into an exercise is gathering a commodity with few opportunities to interact with people.

And more broadly, how much is Halloween a family or community holiday compared to other big celebrations like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and July 4th?

Linking great trick-or-treat neighborhoods to traditional neighborhood design

Maybe a good trick-or-treat location should be defined less by the available candy and more regarding its design:

Great neighbourhoods for trick-or-treating also tend to be great neighborhoods for families everyday:

  • Tree-lined streets designed for walkers more than speeding cars.
  • Enough density and community completeness, to activate what I call “the power of nearness” – everything you need, nearby.
  • Good visual surveillance through doors and stoops, windows (and I don’t mean windows in garages), porches and “eyes on the street.”
  • Connected, legible streets that let you “read” the neighbourhood easily -grids tend to be good for this, but other patterns work too…

If kids ARE being driven in, that can mean it’s a great neighbourhood from a design perspective (or perhaps just that it’s a more affluent community, with “better candy”) — but having too few local kids can show that there isn’t enough housing diversity, new infill, and family-friendly “infrastructure” to keep kids in the neighbourhood. In fact, in many beautiful, tree-lined neighbourhoods popular on Halloween, the number of local kids may be actually dropping, with resulting pressures on local schools to close. This as household sizes decrease, and new density and “gentle infill” that could stabilize the population and keep kids in the neighbourhood, is often locally resisted.

From this point of view, good neighborhoods promote walkability and ultimately sociability. There are few times of years where this matters as much as Halloween as many Americans do not regularly walk down their streets to visit a number of neighbors at once.

More broadly, the practice of trick-or-treating is closely tied to social trust. Even with no documented cases of poisoned candy, parents want to know that their kids are safe. And with declining social trust in the United States, again, there are limited numbers of opportunities where Americans ritually interact with physical neighbors as opposed to seeking out people they whom they share an identity or interests.

It sounds like there is an empirical question to be answered here: do neighborhoods with (1) more traditional design and (2) higher levels of social trust (which may or more not be related to the neighborhood design experience more satisfying trick-or-treat experiences (measured by numbers of children trick-or-treating, percent of households providing candy, and perceptions of whether the neighborhood is a good place for this)?

Time of year for HOAs to crack down on holiday decorations

As Halloween decorations emerge, homeowner’s associations are back to patrolling displays. See this example in Naperville:

After neighbors complained to the Ashbury Homeowners Association board about the traffic and noise created by the celebrated house decorations, the group installed rules that thwarted Thomas’ plans.

“I am disappointed,” said Thomas, who has lived in the 1100 block of Conan Doyle Road in south Naperville for 21 years and has decorated his house for the past 18 years. “For a lot of people, the house has become a tradition and it is something people look forward to.”

Thomas’ display has grown over the years, and now includes over 2,000 pieces with lights and synchronized music. Visitors to the cul-de-sac have also grown — he estimates about 8,000 people visited last year alone — which is why neighbors raised concerns about traffic and safety with the Ashbury Homeowners Association board.

The board notified neighbors via its October newsletter that a “Holiday Decorations Rule” was voted on and passed at its Sept. 21 board meeting. The rule limits a person’s decorations to 50 percent of the yard, excluding lights, and restricts the display to 30 days before and after the holiday.

I can see both sides to this story. The homeowner may be asking why the association is now instituting these rules. He has had displays for years; why now? The HOA might say that the displays keep growing and attracting thousands of people disrupts the neighborhood. On the other side, suburban residents tend to prefer quiet streets and neighbors that don’t draw negative attention to themselves (even if they are raising some money for charity). The owner could respond that these are just temporary decorations. The final guidelines may be reasonable: a homeowner could still do a lot with 50 percent of their yard and thirty days before and after provides around 60 days for the displays.

To avoid issues such as these, wouldn’t homeowners associations be better off having such guidelines on their books from the beginning or before such situations arise where single owners feel like they are being singled out? Associations are often pilloried for having silly rules on their books but they can help cut off situations such as these.

Zillow back with Trick or Treat ratings for major cities

Zillow is back with its 2014 rankings of “Best Cities for Trick or Treating.” San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago round out the top three. The methodology has not changed much compared to 2013:

We take data seriously here at Zillow, even when it comes to trick or treating. While wealthier neighborhoods are often known for their frightfully sweet harvest on Halloween night, we calculate the Trick-or-Treat Index using a holistic approach with four equally weighted data variables: Zillow Home Value Index, population density, Walk Score® and local crime data from Relocation Essentials. Based on these variables, the index represents cities that will provide the most candy, in the least amount of time, with the fewest safety risks.

In the era of Internet lists, this is a potentially catchy list. The factor of housing values filters out a lot of places with the top 10 dominated by coastal cities with Chicago as the only Midwestern or Southern entry.

Yet, it also seems limited to major cities, not even metropolitan regions, so its scope is limited. Many Americans live in suburbs or smaller big cities and those don’t seem to make the cut here. Perhaps Zillow doesn’t have the same availability of data in these places.

I suspect that people within these cities would not all appreciate it if people took these rankings seriously and in large numbers flocked to the highest-rated neighborhoods just to get better candy more quickly. But, it would certainly be interesting if large numbers did show up…

Sociologist who studies fear at and collects stats for a haunted house

Here is one way to put sociological training into practice: working for a haunted house.

Ms. Kerr’s equivalent of a coffee break was the ScareHouse in Etna, which bills itself as “Pittsburgh’s ultimate haunted house” and has earned accolades from national publications, trade magazines, horror movie directors and other outlets to buttress the claim…

A part-time professor at Pitt and Robert Morris University, Ms. Kerr’s appreciation for the macabre also led to a job at ScareHouse, where she’s worked since 2008 as an administrator, statistician and resident sociologist…

Though the ScareHouse, which opened in 1999, had long taken customer surveys, Ms. Kerr added a new dimension, he says, polling not just on what aspects of the haunted house worked but what customers’ fear most deeply…

Ms. Kerr’s book, based on her haunted house experiences, deals with “the real benefits of experiencing thrilling or scary materials.” Those can range from the endorphin and adrenaline rush and confidence boost of surviving a dicey encounter to the stronger bonds formed in social groups that experience a scary situation together. Of course, there’s an important caveat.

“To really enjoy thrilling situations, you have to know that you’re safe,” she added.

“Thanks for experiencing our haunted house – now please take our exit survey.” Yet, it sounds like an interesting place to collect data. It would be interesting to hear how generalizable the findings about fear at a haunted house might be to other situations.

I often tell my statistics and research methods students that all sorts of organizations, from NGOs to corporations to religious groups to governments, are looking to collect and analyze data. Here is another example I can use that might prove more interesting than some other options…

The “trick or treat index” for metropolitan areas and Chicago neighborhoods

In a ranking sure to bring in some Internet traffic, Zillow has put together a “trick or treat index”. The top ten cities: San Francisco, Boston, Honolulu, San Jose, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C., Portland, and Philadelphia. You can also see the top neighborhoods for these cities. Here is what goes into the index:

Zillow takes numbers seriously, even when it comes to trick or treating. Taking the most holistic approach, the Trick-or-Treat Index is calculated using four equally weighted data variables: Zillow Home Value Index, population density, Walk Score and local crime data from Relocation Essentials. Based on these variables, the Index represents cities that will provide the most candy, with the fewest walking and safety risks.

A brief and clear explanation. The index includes four equally weighted factors: the price of homes (giving some indication of the wealth in the neighborhood), density (how many people/households are available to go to for candy), walkability (can easily walk to more candy locations), and crime rates (safety while trick-or-treating). All of this presumably adds up to identifying the best places to get candy: wealthy people are likely to give better candy, there are more households within a short walk, and it is safe. But, why don’t we get the actual ratings in these four categories for the top cities?

It is probably not worth anyone doing a serious research project on this but it would be interesting to crowdsource some data from Halloween to see how this index matches up with experiences on the ground. In other words, does this index have validity? This seems like a perfect Internet project – think GasBuddy for Halloween candy.

Chicago McMansion battle reaches the McMansion pumpkin stage

One battle over a proposed McMansion in Chicago recently turned to pumpkins:

The large pumpkin popped up over the weekend next to his lot at 829 S. Bishop St. It was painted with the words, “When size matters … McMansion Pumpkin.”

Many neighbors have referred to Skarbek’s plan for his home as a “McMansion.” He plans to build a home much larger than the row home that had been there, and the home will eventually interrupt a string of front yards that are all set back from the street…

Later Tuesday, Skarbek’s next-door neighbor, Paul Fitzpatrick, said his wife decorated the pumpkin, which actually sits on his yard to the north of a fence surrounding Skarbek’s lot while the new home is being built.

“I meant it as a good gesture,” Carrie Fitzpatrick said. “He likes big houses, so I thought he’d like a big pumpkin. I spent a lot of money on that pumpkin, and if it backfired, I’ll feel really stupid.”

A holiday-themed McMansion fight turned petty. Both sides appear to be trying to pass it off as no big deal but even in a country of moral minimalism (the argument of M. P Baumgartner in The Moral Order of a Suburb), this is an odd way to go about things. If the neighbors are already pursuing a lawsuit, the other main way for Americans to settle irreconcilable differences, why move to the pumpkin stage?

Obligatory sociological reminder that there is little evidence of Halloween candy tampering

Every Halloween, sociologist Joel Best reminds people that there is little  evidence of Halloween candy tampering:

For decades, parents have been warned to check sweet-wrappers for signs of tampering, chocolate bars for hidden needles, and apples for surreptitiously inserted razor blades when their children return home from knocking on strangers’ doors. But Dr Joel Best, a sociologist and criminologist at the University of Delaware, has researched every reported case of so-called “Halloween sadism” in the past 45 years, and has concluded that not one of them was genuine…

Dr Best has discovered 90 cases of alleged poisoning reported by newspapers or hospitals since 1958 but he says that none can be attributed to random attempts to harm kids. Most are pranks by children seeking attention; some are murkier attempts by parents to gain compensation…

The myth picked up speed in the late 1960s, as the popularity of Halloween also increased. At the time, many Americans apparently believed that hippies might get a kick from adding LSD to the sweets of unsuspecting children.

The phenomenon peaked in 1970 and 1971, when there were 10 and 14 reported incidents respectively. There was another mini-peak in 1982, when 12 alleged cases occurred. None have ever been confirmed, but the myth of “Halloween Sadism” nonetheless endures. Over the years, America’s National Association of Confectioners, for whom 31 October is crucial, have attempted to persuade the nation that trick-or-treating is safe. But Dr Best’s research, which has informed a book called Threatened Children, leads him to believe they face an uphill struggle.

Some urban legends live on. Here is what might contribute to the longevity of this particular story:

1. Journalists who are looking for such stories. If most of these cases did not pan out, did these same media outlets report this or issue a correction or retraction? Even if they did, the harm was likely already done.

2. Parents who are generally scared for their children in lots of areas, not just candy received on Halloween.

3. Are there any movies, books, or TV shows that have perpetuated this storyline? I can’t think of any but I wouldn’t be surprised if such works exist.

4. It seems like it could be plausible, perhaps even more so than cases like the unsolved 1982 Tylenol cases in Chicago (see a recent oral history here).

5. The holiday of Halloween lends itself to such stories. It is hard to imagine similar stories emerging out of Easter or Christmas, both holidays that involve candy and gifts that could be tampered with.

Cities ranked by the “Trick or Treat Index”

Richard Florida has put some of his data to use to answer an important question: what are the best cities in the united States for trick or treating on Halloween?

According to National Retail Federation projections, Americans will spend $6.86 billion on Halloween this year, up from $3.3 billion in 2005 when a lot fewer of us were out of work. But even as Halloween edges up on Christmas as a shopping opportunity, the trick-or-treating experience is a lot less universal than it was. In some towns, you see hardly any unsupervised trick-or-treaters after dark; in other places—Brooklyn Heights or my neighborhood in Toronto leap to mind—there are more kids than you can imagine.

Herewith the 2011 edition of the Trick-or-Treater Index developed with the ever-able number-crunching of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague, Charlotta Mellander. The 2011 Index is based on the following five metrics: the share of children aged 5 to 14; median household income (figuring the haul will be better in more affluent metros), population density, walkability (measured as the percentage of people who walk or bike to work) and creative spirit (which we measured as the percentage of artists, designers, and other cultural creatives). The data are from the American Community Survey and cover all U.S. metro areas, both their cores and suburbs…

As for the top ranking metros, Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut, comes in first again this year. Greater New York has moved up to second place, followed by Chicago, greater Washington, D.C., and the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Los Angeles, last year’s runner-up, has dropped to 7th place. Big metros dominate the top spots, but Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has moved all the way up from 16th last year to 6th on our 2011 rankings. And college towns like Ann Arbor, Michigan, Boulder, Colorado, and New Haven, Connecticut, also rank among the top 25.

This reminds me of another recent odd use of data that ranked the luckiest cities. So people with more money, who are more creative, and live in more walkable areas necessarily give more or better candy? Might they also be the people who are more likely to give substitutes to candy? Could this also be related to health measures, like obesity or life expectancy? This seems like opportunistic, atheoretical data mining meant to get a few page clicks (like me).

And since there are probably few people who would go to a whole new metropolitan area just to get candy, wouldn’t this be a better analysis if it was at a zip code, community, or census block level?

Debunking the myth of poisoned candy

Amidst an argument about how the supervision of Halloween activities due to fear has spread to other arenas, sociologist Joel Best is mentioned as an expert who every year tries to remind people that poisoned candy is not a threat to children:

Take “stranger danger,” the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the “Bewitched” and “Brady Bunch” costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.

That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger’s Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)

There is little or no evidence for this problem – and yet the stories continue. This might be considered an “invented social problem,” a situation where people fear something that doesn’t really exist. In contrast, many people are trying to get people to recognize valid social problems, like poverty or fighting certain kinds of cancer.

I wonder if this fear about candy is linked to general fears that suburbanites have about their neighbors and outside forces that might affect them.