Who is Halloween for? In some towns and cities across the country, there’s an answer written in law. Various municipalities have ordinances that actually ban teenagers from trick-or-treating, with punishments including fines, police reprimands, or in some places, potential jail time. Reports of enforcement, as far as I can tell, are essentially nonexistent. But in an era of heightened awareness to the dangers of overpolicing, Halloween regulations are attracting a fresh backlash. Chesapeake, Virginia, used to threaten jail time to anyone over 14, but the city softened its Halloween ordinance this spring in response to mocking publicity, including a spot on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! (“I do think trick-or-treating should be limited to little kids, not teenagers, but not with the threat of incarceration. … It just seems like this particular crime is pretty much victimless,” Kimmel said.) The original law had been enacted in 1970 and had never been enforced, a town spokesperson told CNN last week.
Belleville, Illinois, has forbidden teenagers from trick-or-treating since 2008, with no plans to back down. Belleville, just across the Mississippi River from Saint Louis, is the county seat of St. Clair County and the most populated city in Southern Illinois. It is also the town where the company now called Jelly Belly Candy Co.—which helped popularize candy corn—was founded in 1869. Mark Eckert, the mayor of Belleville, signed an ordinance in 2008 that banned anyone older than 12 from trick-or-treating. More precisely, the ordinance forbids “seeking or obtaining gifts, food, candy or contributions of money, as is customarily and commonly known as ‘trick or treat’ in the celebration of Halloween day.” (An exception is made for older disabled children accompanied by caregivers.)
Since then, Eckert has become “the poster boy for Halloween regulations,” as one Belleville reporter put it a few years after the ordinance passed. Eckert called me from his office on Friday, as he was preparing to host an all-ages pre-Halloween party on Main Street in Belleville, with hayrides, costumes, and grilled hot dogs. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Ruth Graham: Can you start by telling me about your own trick-or-treating experiences as a kid?
Mark Eckert: I grew up here in Belleville my whole life. I’m 63 years old, I’ll be 64 in January. Come December, I’ll be mayor 15 years of the city. My father was a Belleville policeman for 25 years. When we went trick-or-treating, we went out with family or my big brother, who was seven years older, and we were told what time to be home. But when we got to be probably junior high age, our father told us, “You’re too old to go trick-or-treating.” Parents made those decisions then, Ruth. And, you didn’t have to worry.
What started happening in Belleville was that we saw and heard from a lot of seniors particularly, that big kids—kids in high school—kids were coming to the door as late as 10 o’clock at night and seniors were afraid to open the door and they were afraid if they didn’t open the door that something was going to happen to their house. And likewise I had some conversation with a number of young single moms who said, “Mr. Eckert, Halloween scares us because there’s so many big kids that come around late at night.”
Unfortunately across the nation and in this region, you had a few situations where not only did big kids come trick-or-treating, sometimes they forced the door open. Somebody cracks the door and says, “Hello, who’s there?” And then if it’s an elderly person especially it doesn’t take much to push them over.
Were there actually incidents where kids were doing something damaging, or was it just the feeling that they could?
I would say that we probably had a few calls that added to the encouraging me to get going on the ordinance. The police chief and I talk daily. And we had a few situations in those years where seniors had called the police because they felt very threatened by the large number of kids who were on their front porch and getting very aggressive in some cases. They seemed like they felt like they were going to force their way into their home. People watch the news and they see things throughout the country. And I’m only 63, but there are some nights I want to go to bed at 9 o’clock.
Seniors were actually being awakened in bed, and they didn’t know if they should answer the door or not answer the door. I can’t say we had any particular bad situations that prompted me to talk to the aldermen at that time and move this ordinance forward.
How has Belleville itself changed since you were a kid?
We’re certainly larger than when I was a kid, [Belleville’s population is more than 40,000] today. When I was a kid, we were probably about 30, 32,000. So we’ve grown. But it’s basically that life has changed. Today around the country, really and truthfully, where can you sleep with your doors unlocked?
I’ll be honest with you, OK. I was married, the first time was in 1976. My ex-wife and I got divorced unfortunately in 1981 or ’82, and at that time my son, who is now 41 years old—my oldest son is over in Afghanistan as we speak, he’s a trauma surgeon in the Army. My oldest, he was one of the first kids in his school that had divorced parents in the 1980s. My point is, you know, kids all had two parents and people watched their neighbors.
When I was a kid, if you acted up, before you got home, your parents probably knew about it because the neighbors whistled down the street or got on the phone and told them. It was a neighborhood closeness, and a lot of that has changed all over. The type of world we live in today, people open their garage door, they drive in, they close it, they don’t even talk to their neighbors.
What do you say to people who say, “OK, teenagers shouldn’t be trick-or-treating, but that’s an issue for their parents.” Why should the government be involved?
Unfortunately, sometimes when parents fail to act, unfortunately that’s when police departments in government sometimes over the years have had to act. And I don’t like that, but children have to know they cannot just run amok. That’s why we have curfew. That’s why they can’t run around all night. Some parents today will argue with our police chief or our higher officials in the police department when they do call them and say, “We got your kids, come down to the station. It’s two in the morning and your 14-year-old kids and the neighbor kids are running the streets, you need to come pick them up.” [Parents say,] “Well there’s nothing wrong with them being out.” Yes there is, yes there is. They’re still children. They’re not adults. And to be out on the street at two in the morning—which doesn’t happen all the time, but it does happen.
So sometimes we have to make those decisions for parents who aren’t being parents, maybe aren’t home themselves, maybe the kids are raising themselves. It’s unfortunate, but in today’s world we live in, sometimes government has to make tough decisions like this.
Was it challenging to craft the language for the ordinance? I’m just thinking about having to define trick-or-treating in legal language. How did you go about doing that?
We talked to quite a few educators. We talked to law enforcement. We talked to some parents. We talked to a lot of different people. Was there anything scientific to it? No. Our principals gave us input as well. Our city treasurer at that time was my high school principal when I was a kid and he was very much for it. He just said, “It’s time that we take some leadership and some action to make sure that the general overall population doesn’t take this particular Halloween event and start to feel like they need to leave town for the evening because they feel intimidated.”
What are the consequences if police do see teenagers trick-or-treating?
We haven’t had a major issue. The police have had to tell a few kids, “Hey, if you didn’t know it, there is an ordinance.” We publish it in our quarterly newsletter. I meet each year with school principals and superintendents. I have annual meetings where we update them and I remind them, “Just tell the kids, remind them in your announcements that they’re not allowed to trick-or-treat after a certain age.” There are parties for kids in high school and there are different other functions.
What do teenagers do for fun on Halloween in Belleville now?
The schools have various get-togethers. They have dances, some of them, and they have various functions. Kids have a lot of house parties. Church groups have different hayrides and barn dances.
I think those are the things that high school kids should be going to. Like I said, it’s maybe just the way our town is, but we’re trying, we’re trying hard. We’re trying to keep feeling safe in your neighborhood and the family values that some of us grew up with a long time ago.