Look at Life: Halloween

28th October 2016

Some Enchanted Evening

By Lisa Botwright

It’s no secret that I’m all ‘bah, humbug’ when it comes to Christmas (too pressurised, too commercial), but, oddly, I’ve always had a soft spot for Halloween. I’m a child of the 80s; I grew up when the idea of ‘trick and treating’ was new and exciting. ‘Very American’ my grandparents sniffed, with a ‘whatever next?’ air, while I obsessed happily over ET and other compelling US imports. The image of that loveable extra-terrestrial haphazardly hidden under a sheet when the children sneak him out on Halloween night is a favourite of mine – but even more irresistible was the idea that so many people were milling around the neighbourhood, all dressed up as if it were one big party. If it happened over there, why couldn’t it happen here? Halloween just wasn’t the same in Watford.

Fast forward a couple of decades – I now have a young family, a typically ominous Hertfordshire mortgage, and a new grown-up reason for my Halloween love: no huge credit card hangovers, no complicated and expensive meals to prepare and no family coming to stay (I told you… ‘bah, humbug’). I’ve positively embraced Halloween as the easiest and most fun of all the family holidays, and by far the least profit-driven. I know that might seem strange when you can’t move in a supermarket at this time of year for fear of toppling displays of ‘cobwebs in a can’ off the shelves or tripping backwards over plastic broomsticks… but there’s no pressure to actually buy any of it.

All you need is a pumpkin and a family pack of Haribo to enter into the spirit. Dust off the witch’s hat that’s in the back of the wardrobe from last year, and use your black eyeliner to draw a wobbly spider onto your cheek – job done. Even someone as minimally arty-crafty as I am can whip up a costume for the kids with an old bed sheet (yes, ET-style) and a bottle of ketchup.

We still might not be as party-minded as the Americans – but Halloween can be a really sociable time. Taking my children around the local area, all dressed up, I meet families I’d never run into otherwise, as we chat on the doorstep through plastic fang teeth and compliment each other’s pumpkin carvings. We might bump into friends and end up back at someone’s house, mingling over left-over sweets and whatever wine’s in the fridge; perhaps a delicious mug of homemade pumpkin-remains soup, if we’re lucky. So easy and low-key.

That’s why I was really rather shocked to come across a magazine article entitled ‘Surviving Halloween’ – full of tips on all the delicious and complicated meals you can make; recommendations to invite family over for a big party and where to buy your outfits. Honestly, if that makes you happy, then great. But if it’s all about ‘surviving’, and it’s going to tie you up in complicated, over-competitive knots, then why would you bother? Isn’t that what Christmas is for?

I realised the extent of my naive enthusiasm the year we chose to spend the evening in a certain north west London area known for its super rich American residents. It was the most incredible experience – streets full of houses with façades more magical than a Harry Potter film set, and fellow trick-or-treaters with costumes more inventive than a Star Wars convention. Over-competitive? That’s an understatement.
People are actually paid to ‘style’ the houses and to carve pumpkins with such sophisticated designs that they’re to be considered art.

Sadly, there are underprivileged areas where the vibe is not so carefree, where a trick might mean a real trick – threatening and humiliating for elderly or vulnerable households. They’re the places where staying home on Halloween is definitely the best option.

Back here in leafy suburban Herts, the accepted convention is all about politeness. Children are taught only to knock on someone’s door because they know them well, or because there’s a pumpkin (or a string of fake cobwebs or some other mock ghoulish sign) outside, indicating that the occupants are happy to give out handfuls of sweets to a bunch of four-feet-high ghosts, witches and wizards. There’s even an app (‘Nextdoor’ – a social network for neighbourhoods) that allows people who are game for the occasion to pin their home on a map.

But if you’re all ‘bah, humbug’ about Halloween and don’t want to be disturbed, all you have to do is turn off the outside lights and hunker down. Or, for a little amusement of your own, and a cast-iron guarantee that the neighbourhood children will never knock again, give out fruit instead of sweets – that will send them off screaming into the night as if all the hounds of hell were behind them…

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