Children carving a Halloween pumpkin, Calgary, Alberta, 1947. Photo by Lorne Burkell. Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary.

Halloween in Calgary haunted by a dark, dangerous and mischievous past

Cute costumes, miniature chocolate bars and a choreographed ritual of extortion that keeps the little demons from actually threatening our lives.

And terrorize they once did, every Halloween, until some heroic diplomat realized even the most evil-hearted adolescent monster can be sedated with free candy, provided there’s enough of it.

That bowl of treats at your door, come Oct. 31st?

It’s a reminder that “trick or treat” was once a real threat of violence and vandalism, and those little Kit Kat and Snickers bars are the price for a half-century of peace with a wicked cartel.

Calgary, like every other town and city in North America, used to await Halloween season in dread, knowing youngsters were plotting “tricks,” their goal being mischief and general mayhem.

There was no need for plastic skeletons and fake ghouls in the first half of the 20th century, when real horrors were scurrying through town, breaking windows and lighting fires in a tradition known as Goosey Night or Devil Night.

Fences were torn down, windows were soaped or smashed, and flour bombs thrown – but this was minor stuff. Whether truly evil or just lacking in basic foresight, generations that would grow up to preach about “common sense” showed almost none when it came to potentially lethal hijinks.

Take Halloween 1925, when a sharp-eyed Calgary Municipal Railway worker averted a mass casualty disaster beneath the steep Bridgeland hill, after realizing idiot pranksters had greased the tracks, rendering the street car brakes useless.

William Davies and his three truck passengers weren’t so lucky, failing to spot a telephone pole Halloween tricksters had tied across an East Calgary traffic bridge that same year. Slamming into the pole in the darkness, their vehicle was sent spiraling into a deep irrigation ditch.

“(They) plunged through the railing along the side of the bridge grade and toppled down the embankment … turning a complete somersault,” reads the newspaper account.

The near-fatal rollover left one passenger hospitalized with severe injuries to the head, while the truck “was completely wrecked.”

Then there were fires. 

Patients in costumes for Halloween party, Central Alberta sanatorium, Keith, Alberta, late 1920s Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary.

“Damage estimated at more than $600 was done to the East End Community Club Friday evening, by a fire believed to be of incendiary origin,” was the report of Nov. 1, 1930, following a night in which no less than 10 serious blazes were deliberately set by delinquents.

Flames not being dangerous enough for some demons, hay bales had been piled on the Inglewood bridge, in hopes the fire truck responding to the blaze would hit the barrier in the Halloween darkness.

It was the same Halloween madness in cities and towns across the continent, and in 1913, Castor, AB. lost 14 horses in a barn fire set by young arsonists.

In Banff, 1937, the contents of the local school were almost completely destroyed by a gang of Halloween hoodlums, who broke in overnight: “When the teaching staff arrived they found all the school books out of the desks and on the floor. Ink had been thrown over everything and many of the books had been torn and stained past mending.”

At least nobody died. Except they sometimes did. 

A grave in Eganville, Ont. holds the remains of Alex Reid, shot to death in Leduc, Alberta on Halloween night, 1904, by a nervous shopkeeper over-zealous in protecting his property from pranksters.

Another business owner defending his livelihood from young punks left four teens in critical condition in Kerrobert, SK., in 1932, after opening fire with a shotgun: “The shooting occurred between 11 o’clock and midnight as a group of young-persons approached the Widdowson bakery.”

In Kelowna, a 1939 Halloween prank was blamed for the murder of Angus McMillan, after an apple stuck in his car exhaust filled the running vehicle with lethal carbon monoxide.

Calgary thankfully avoided any Halloween body bags, though a Chinese citizen was mocked by incredulous police after he reported being shot at by a gang of gun-toting youths in 1906.

The municipal police force had little time to sit around ridiculing victims in 1929, when more than 800 service calls were received over the course of Halloween night.

“With close to 150 telephone calls an hour pouring into police headquarters, reporting damage, and every member of the force on duty, considerable property loss was caused through Hallowe’en pranks on Thursday night,” reads the next day’s newspaper.

Another year, another night of mayhem and wanton destruction.

But just one decade later, the long tradition of Halloween tricks – brought to North America from Europe – was finally starting to wane.

“Observance of Hallowe’en Will Be Quiet In Calgary; Hand-Outs Become ‘Racket’ ” proclaimed the city news section on Oct. 26, 1938, as police predicted a gentler, kinder Devil Night in Calgary.

The “racket” in question was the same blackmail that opened this article, in the form of treats like candy, fruit and nuts, which in the beginning were handed out by businesses rather than homes.

Somewhere, some clever person bribed the local Halloween hooligans with sweets, if they would leave their property in peace. The bribe scheme quickly caught on, with gangs of trouble makers calling at the door before any destruction started – treats, or you get tricks.

A response of candy or other tasty food meant the gang would move on to the next potential victim.

“Merchants are anticipating the usual number of ‘trick or treat’ demands, which, during the past few years, have rapidly increased. However this is much more acceptable to them than the destruction which many properties suffered during the ‘old days,’ ” reads the Calgary article.

“(Merchants) admitted that the demands during recent years had grown to the proportions of ‘a racket’. ‘Many youngsters bring around huge sacks and demand treats even though they may already have enough to last them for a month,’ one merchant said.”

And so the modern era of doorbell extortion began, the tasty bribes for peace soon extending to homeowners wishing to protect their properties as well. Candy companies soon responded to the sudden demand for sweets prior to Halloween night.

Fast forward to 2023, and Halloween is all artificial scares and sugar, where the tricks are few and feeble, and the treats are a thriving industry worth billions in North America alone.

Such is the price of keeping the little demons at bay.