By Andrew Extein
It can be said that sex offenders are the new bogeymen, mythical monsters invented to scare children into social order. People convicted of sex offenses, and subsequently placed on the public registry, are transformed into a concept of evil, which is then personified as a group of faceless, terrifying, and predatory devils. It would appear that this strategy is used to keep sex offenders at a distance, in turn keeping our children and families safe from harm. But in reality, such fantasy does just the opposite: ignoring the realities of sex offenses puts children, families, and adults at greater risk.
Halloween is a notable time to talk about sex offenders and the issues surrounding such labeling, as they conjure both legal realities and Jungian fantasy. Many cities and counties have enacted special laws that dictate what sex offenders are allowed to do and where they are allowed to be on Halloween, publicizing their identities and putting them at risk of harassment or worse. On a deeper level, Halloween enhances cultural fear, paranoia, and panic--a bad combination for sex offenders. Why have sex offenders become our "bogeymen," and why is this counterproductive?
The concept of the bogeyman has been around for centuries, with variations around the world. He is faceless, vague, and cloaked, yet undeniably terrifying. Parents instill the idea of the bogeyman in the minds of children to make them behave, or avoid dangerous situations. The sick beauty of the bogeyman is that he exists only in the mind, with every person imagining a different manifestation of the mythical figure. He is a projection of your worst fears, your scariest nightmares, and your most crippling anxieties.
The bogeyman is central to Halloween. The holiday is rooted in Christian tradition and folklore, and dates back for centuries in Europe. Halloween in the United States began in the 19th century with the Irish and Scottish migration. Jack-o-lanterns frighten evil spirits, trick-or-treating uses threats to get sweets, and costumes mock satanic figures. Halloween has evolved into a cathartic holiday that celebrates fear, indulges in horror, and helps us exercise our imagination. The personification of this fear takes many forms--witches, killers, vampires--but the central concept remains the same. Some fears are too scary to take such specific forms, and the result is the vaguely terrifying bogeyman.
American culture is steeped in moral panics. Puritanical witch-hunts, racial persecution, xenophobic internment, and institutionalization of gay men are all examples of misplaced solutions to deeply engrained cultural fears of difference. In the mid-1960s the concept of "stranger danger" came into prominence, dissuading children from interacting with unknown adults and feeding dormant fears of otherness. Adult males with an inexplicable interest in talking to children were specific targets of stranger danger, resulting in a new, vague bogeyman archetype. Comedic by contemporary standards, educational films were created and propagated in schools to make sure every child understood that adult men were not to be trusted--guilty until proven innocent, bad until proven good.
Over decades this archetype has grown, been fostered, and gained steam. It is deeply ingrained in the way families view the outside world. In the 1980s, this bogeyman, the one who bribes children with candy, took on a new, more specific form. Sex offenders were selected as the realization of moral panics about sex, stranger danger, and national paranoia. Over time, Americans have become well accustomed to the sex offender bogeyman. Despite any statistics, data, or examples that prove otherwise (low re-offense rates of 2-5%, the majority of child sexual abuse being enacted by a family member or trusted friend), we believe that sex offenders prove a serious threat to children and families. They remain dormant, anonymous, in our neighborhoods, just waiting for the right time to strike. Public online registries were created to satiate our appetite for sex offenders, to indulge in our darkest fears, and inspect all the bogeymen that haunt our fantasies.