From The Guardian (UK 2003-10-24): “When, over 10 years ago, my first-born sang Halloween’s Coming at her nursery, accompanied by witchy music and brandishing a broomstick lovingly crafted by her dad, I was charmed. Halloween was new not just to me, but also to Britain. Before that it was just an obscure American tradition and a John Carpenter horror movie. Now, 10 years later, it’s become a fixture on the British calendar, but my enthusiasm has curdled. Halloween is the new Christmas, and I am its Scrooge.”
Tricks, but no treat
Halloween is when spirits roam the earth, teenagers roam the streets and parents spend a small fortune
Friday October 24, 2003
… My volte-face has nothing to do with religious objections. You need to be a pretty literal soul to imagine that putting on a pointy hat encourages a belief in the occult, or that a desire for unlimited confectionery equates with messing about with evil spirits. Halloween has less to do with Satan than satiety.
In the beginning, Halloween was a revelation. For one night a year it seemed to change the neighbourhood and reclaim the streets. Children were out after dark, and the sheer numbers made it safe. Somehow the camouflage of costume and the role of chaperone freed parents, children and assorted bystanders to chat to each other, to transgress the taboo of not talking to strangers. Conversations started up spontaneously on street corners, neighbours discovered each other. This isn’t as rare as the stereotypes of city life would have us believe: pub-goers, dog-walkers, buggy-pushers – all make connections as they move about. But it rarely happens on this scale, after dark, or between groups.
Last year I talked to a neighbour for the first time in the quarter century we’d both been living in the area, swapped news with someone I hadn’t seen for a couple of years, and was given home-baked chocolate chip cookies by a 20-year-old American woman newly arrived in London with her English husband. It’s also voyeuristically satisfying to glimpse the insides of other people’s homes.
Yet something more malevolent has been happening to the streets on Halloween over the past few years. They say that Allhallows Eve is when supernatural beings roam earth for the night. Today they’re called teenagers. They grew up with Halloween, aren’t ready to cede it to their siblings, and have changed the flavour of trick or treating. Once-harmless pranks, like tying toilet paper around the front gate, have turned more aggressive – like throwing eggs or paint stripper on to front doors.
When I first heard parents describe trick or treating as extortion or glorified begging, I dismissed them as moralistic killjoys in search of something to ban. But last year I saw a group of teens, without the merest pretence of a costume, banging on a front door, bellowing with outrage “They’re obviously in there – there’s a party going on” and yelling at the people inside to open up. (You don’t need to be old or nervous to feel under siege.) I saw competitiveness over who had rights to a particular patch. The streets became rowdier rather than safer.
Most children love dressing up, and part of the pleasure of Halloween was seeing the ingenuity and effort they put into making their costumes. Yet today Halloween has become just another item on the maternal “to do” list – or rather “to buy”, since people increasingly buy what they used to make. This isn’t nostalgie de la glue – I’m not in possession of the gumming gene. I didn’t enjoy sticking things as a child, so imagine the joy with which I viewed the reappearance of adhesives when I became a parent.
But Halloween marks the start of a three-month selling season that culminates in Christmas. It segues seamlessly into bonfire night, which serves as the launch for Christmas (just as Valentine’s Day is the dress rehearsal for Easter). It’s when pester power cranks up, and parental resolve cracks. Halloween is the new Christmas because it’s been appropriated by commerce. Rarely can the period between the take-up of a new festival and its commercialisation have been so short.
The amount spent on Halloween merchandise has grown so exponentially over the past few years that it’s now second only to Christmas. Halloween is the season of goodwill for manufacturers of orange plastic; and Harry Potter – generating so much paraphernalia of witchery – its patron saint.
Perhaps Scotland has it right. There they call it guising, and you only get your treats in return for tricks like telling a joke, reciting a poem or singing a song. Meanwhile in the US, especially since September 11, Halloween’s popularity has waned, because of fears of razor blades concealed in apples and candy laced with anthrax. In fact, these are old urban legends: sociologist Joel Best, investigating 80 newspaper stories of Halloween crime between 1958 and 1998, found that 90% were hoaxes or exaggerations. This tells us that Halloween is when children like to get scared by spooks and ghouls, and parents by stories of poisoned food and nasty neighbours. We all love fear, albeit under our own control.
So this year, despite my vow that last year would be the last year, I’ll again be taking my youngest trick or treating, in a newly bought costume (£4.99 in the Woolworths sale). But under my breath, I’ll be muttering “Halloween? Bah, humbug.”