Monday, October 28, 2013

Purging Mischief

As a sleepless midnight rolled around last night, I turned on The Purge, a seasonally appropriate thriller, on satellite TV. The plot: in a near future, a single 12-hour night is set aside each year in which law is suspended. (Star Trek fans may recognize the plot device from The Return of the Archons episode of the original series in 1966.) There is no legal consequence to any crime, including murder. Government workers above “level 10,” (a level not defined in the film) are off limits, and there is some restriction on weaponry (again not specified), though all handguns, shotguns, and semiautomatic rifles apparently are OK. Otherwise, citizens are free to commit mayhem to their hearts content in whatever way they please. This catharsis is regarded as good for the popular psyche, good for social harmony on the other 364 ½ days, and good for the economy – not least because the most dependent and costly citizens are also the most vulnerable, and so most likely to be weeded out in the Purge. The movie focuses on a well-to-do family; they think they are safe in their fortified home, but they are not.

The movie is passable – not much more than passable, but passable. It does bring to mind, though, a real but (generally) milder version of the Purge that has faded in recent years, though not vanished. Mischief Night (aka Devil’s Night, Gates Night, Mizzy Night, et al.), dedicated to pranks, was once a much bigger deal. The origins of this very unofficial holiday are uncertain. The earliest known mention in print dates to the 18th century and referred to the eve of May Day – the German version of Mischief Night is still the evening before May 1. In regions where Halloween was celebrated, however, including the USA, it eventually shifted to October 30, the night before Halloween, a holiday already associated with tricks as well as treats.

The most common pranks since the 1930s (committed mostly by tweens and teenagers, unsurprisingly) are often dismissed as “harmless”, e.g. eggings, soaped windows, toilet papering, pumpkin smashing, and the like. Anyone who has tried to wash eggs and soap off his car or house probably has a less tolerant opinion. Nonetheless, these offenses are fairly minor. Others are not. Arson became such a problem in Detroit by the 1980s – with hundreds of fires set in some years – that thousands of volunteers patrol the streets on what is now called Angels Night. Since 2000, this has been largely successful in deterring fires.

My dad was a builder, and when I was growing up he always had new homes under construction. This meant he never was home on Mischief Night (or on Halloween) because of the need to guard those properties. They needed guarding. Construction sites seem to be a special draw to marauding kids and teens. Since one can’t watch everything every minute, they could and did break windows, spray paint obscenities on walls, pour tar on stairs, slash tires of construction vehicles, etc. It used to puzzle my parents that other parents let their kids go out on Mischief Night: What exactly did they think their kids were going out to do? By the time I was out of high school I had joined in guard duty on the new homes on Mischief Night and on Halloween; I did this from the 1970s into the 1990s. If you want to spend a spooky Halloween, spend it alone (with no cell phone) in an unlit, unfinished house on a dark wooded lot.

This experience probably gives me a different perspective of The Purge than many viewers might have. I’ve experienced the downside of a mild form of the practice. On the other hand, in the movie the targets can fight back. I was pretty much confined to shouting, “Hey you kids! Scoot!” I like to think I wouldn’t take advantage of an opportunity to do more, but one can see the attraction.


  1. Yeah I heard some mixed reviews of this one. Even some of my more trusted reviewers were on either side of the fence. I think I'll give it a shot, but I won't rush to check it out.

    You know in my neck of the woods there wasn't a lot of Halloween pranking going on. Some toilet paper antics, but that was about it. Most of the folks I knew went to costume parties and got candy. I can't tell you how many high school teenagers I saw out there trick or treating with the little kids. But I've heard that wasn't the case in other areas. My friend in the Boston area also mentioned issues with fires on Halloween.

    1. The Purge is not bad, really, but it's no future classic. The cost in the film of the son's ethics raises some fun questions though.

      Nearby Camden had a serious arson problem for a while, too. Costumed teens (and 20-somethings) outnumber the kids around here nowadays. Kids are almost always accompanied by parents, unlike the trusting days of my youth when we kids (in bunches) trick-or-treated unsupervised.