Halloween in the 1900s: How Applied Behavior Analysis shaped the future of Trick-or-Treating

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By Emaley McCulloch, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

On a typical October 31st, dozens of children may ring your door bell, yell “trick-or-treat” and then hold out their bag for candy. Have you ever thought about how trick-or-treating came to be? There is a lot of interesting history that makes trick-or-treating what it is today, but you may not have heard of a lesser known story of a Des Moines woman in 1938 (who we could consider an early behaviorist) who shaped a whole community’s behavior on Halloween night that has persisted even until today.

Halloween in the 1930s looked very different from today. Although children dressed in costumes, it was a night where children caused some serious mischief.  Children played pranks on neighbors they disliked, made bonfires in the streets, soaped people’s windows or threw rocks and bricks at people’s homes. The pranks were also accompanied by begging for food and treats where adults felt blackmailed into giving children food for fear they would be prey to vandalism. In Des Moines Iowa, every year on November 1st the newspaper would publish a police report of the list of children and teens charged with crimes committed on the previous night. Although these crimes were punished, the list continued to grow each year.

Enough was enough!  In 1938 when police answered a record of 550 calls concerning vandalism, Kathryn Krieg who was the Director of Recreation for the Des Moines Playground Commission (known today as the Parks and Recreation Department) initiated a campaign to change Halloween misconduct. She set to replace violent crimes for some Halloween fun.

She announced that October 30 would be set aside as Beggars’ Night where, for that night only, children would be allowed to go door to door, ring the door bell and say the phrase “tricks or eats.” She urged the community to have treats available to children who would perform a “trick” which meant singing a song, reciting a joke or poem, demonstrating cartwheels or juggling. Krieg used a very effective procedure of behavior change that Behavior Professionals might call, Reinforcing Alternate Behaviors.

Every year, she reiterated that children who participate in Beggars’ Night should not get rewarded unless they have earned it with their “trick” or “stunt”. Now instead of providing a treat to prevent being pranked or vandalized, home owners were reinforcing entertaining and alternate behaviors. Not only did Beggar’s Night gain traction, it worked! The following year had less than half the police calls reporting vandalism than the previous year and by 1941, just three years later, there were a recorded 22 police calls on Beggars’ Night. Even today if you live in the areas of Des Moines, Iowa, parts of Ohio, Massachusetts and New York you may still get children performing, “tricks” as part of their Halloween trick-or-treating.  

Let us know about your Halloween adventures in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Emaley-McCulloch2Emaley McCulloch, M.Ed, BCBA co-founded Autism Training Solutions, LLC in  2008, and is currently the Vice President of Relias Institute at Relias Learning. Relias Learning is the premier provider of online health care training for Health and Human Services, Senior Care and Public Safety. Emaley is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and holds an MA in Special Education. She has served in the field of ABA for over 18 years and has provided and overseen services to individuals between the ages of 18 months to 24 years in homes, schools and clinical settings. For eight years she served as a consultant and supervisor at agencies based in Hawaii and Japan where she trained groups of professionals and parents. Emaley’s passion is elearning, staff training, dissemination of evidenced-based interventions, research, film and videography and using technology in the field of behavior analysis and special education.

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2 Comments on "Halloween in the 1900s: How Applied Behavior Analysis shaped the future of Trick-or-Treating"

  1. I like this story about Des Moines but it wasn’t ABA. It was a concerned citizen. ABA didn’t exist as a technology then.

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