Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Halloween U.K.

It's the day before Halloween and we're wondering what will happen tomorrow, exactly. You see, October 31st in the U.K seems to be a totally different beast from October 31st in the U.S. And why shouldn't it be? They're different countries, after all. But the lead-up to Halloween in England has a menacing undertone: It's expected that the hooliganism that percolates just below the surface here will boil over.

Take the front page of today's Oxford Mail:

There's nothing sadder than an old lady cowering behind her door. The story says that police are gearing up for vandalism and are especially concerned about the elderly. The police have a "No Halloween Here" poster they make available for citizens who don't want their houses approached. Stores are urged not to sell eggs and flour to anyone under 18, lest they be employed in nasty hijinks.

All of this can be bewildering for Americans such as myself and Sarah Churchwell. She's a senior lecturer in American culture and literature at the University of East Anglia and author of an essay in yesterday's Guardian about Britain's bastardized Halloween. I'll forgive her gratuitous slap at my hometown ("Halloween is not scary, unless they reside in the inner city of Washington, in which case every night is scary") for I think she's on to something:
"There is a great deal of resentment toward 'American cultural imports', the myriad ways in which we are contaminating your demi-paradise with our corrupt practices. I hate to break it to you, but in the case of Halloween, you are the ones bastardising our culture. If your version is a violent, threatening and ugly spree across the month of October, don't blame America, blame yourselves."
As always, the comments after her essay online are the most entertaining. There's the America-bashing that is to be expected at the Guardian's Comment Is Free section, but the comments also provide a cultural/anthropological recap of various All Hallow's Eve practices across the British isles, from carving lanterns out of root vegetables to reciting poetry.

There's another article in the Guardian, by Sue Blackmore, extolling Halloween's virtues:
"Halloween is a time to get scared; to conjure up the most frightening ideas you can, of ghosties and ghoulies, and things that jump out in the dark; of spiders and skeletons and creatures that lurk under the bed. Or you can go out on a dark October night and dare to go up to some stranger's front door, looking more cool than your friends, and being the first to ring the door bell - or whatever level of scariness suits your age."
It's not only the English who are struggling to figure out what Halloween should be. In the States it's no longer a holiday just for children. Adults horn in on the action and their horny mindset (throw away your inhibitions on Oct. 31) have crept into the kids' holiday. There's a story on the front page of The Washington Post today about the pornified costumes that are being pitched to children this year, outfits such as micro mini skirts, belly-exposing shirts and fishnet tights.

I agree that Halloween has probably gotten too commercialized (last time I checked, everything had gotten too commercialized), but I think it might be particularly ill-suited to the thug culture that enthralls many (not all, not most) young Britons.

So, what will happen tomorrow? I don't know, but we won't be putting up a "No trick or treat sign" and our jack o'lanterns will be out and lit. I'll let you know if they survive the night.


cktirumalai said...

I am afraid I have to complicate the picture of the American Halloween a little. In the 1970s in the part of Pennsylvania I then lived in ( 20 miles from the cappital of the state) there were substantiated reports of sharp metallic objects in the candy handed out to children by some "adults". Isolated incidents certainly but enough to make parents very nervous and to be very careful of the places their children visited.

Paul said...

A few years ago my sisters family joined me at a halloween party in the atmospheric surroundings of Beckett House, west of Oxford. http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://farm1.static.flickr.com/74/181967156_d2cfbf5545.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.flickr.com/photos/animal-mafia/181967156/&h=333&w=500&sz=116&hl=en&start=4&um=1&tbnid=KcMBw2Y_EqpflM:&tbnh=87&tbnw=130&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dbeckett%2Bhouse%26svnum%3D10%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26sa%3DN

There were lots of silly games involving running around the darkened building, and bobbing for apples just as I did in my youth in Leicester.

For most Brits Halloween is a non-event, unless they have children in which case they might take them to a supervised party such as the above, or possibly escort them trick or treating in an understanding neighbourhood.

My American wife said here in VA the recognized signs are you turn on your porch light and put out a jack o'lantern on the front step if you want to take part.

The comments on the Guardian article reveal some of the causes of trouble in England: the marketing of frightening disguises (the likes of the scream mask not tinkerbell) for Halloween, the ready availability of fireworks around November 5th, the former tradition of begging for money for the Guy for Guy Fawkes night, the idea of trick or treat giving an excuse to knock on a strangers door at night, the inability of the police to maintain a visible street presence. It's made all too easy for a minority of anti-social young people to make their neighbours lives a misery. But another commenter rightly pointed out it is a kind of social pressure valve, useful in crowded cities. There's never an excuse for demanding money with menaces and most people rightly shut the door in the face of stroppy teenagers. In any case everyone can have fun a few nights later on bonfire night.

Thankfully my Arlington neighbourhood has a bonfire on Halloween. It lets the children show off their costumes a bit longer, and for me is a nice substitute for no bonfire night here in the US.

Hope you have a good time.

suburbancorrespondent said...

Wow - I think I'll just be grateful for our innocuous version of Halloween in our suburban neighborhood - costumes (risque or not), knocking (politely) on neighbors' doors, candy galore. How did it get so complicated over there? Yes, there were all those candy scares here in the 70's, but I bet most of them were apocryphal; and there are so many ways to terrorize people these days, Halloween candy lacings are probably pretty far down on the list. Anthrax apples, anyone?

I say, we need to trick-or-treat, or the terrorists (be they homegrown juveniles or foreign-born fanatics) win.

mark from alexandria said...

I think you can really equate the British way of celebrating Halloween with our version of Guy Fawkes Day...but seriously...what amazes me is the French embrace of Halloween, at least the Normans. I have friends from Caen that come over almost every year to celebrate Halloween with us. I don't get it. NPR reported this morning that Halloween is number 4 on the list of holidays that American spend the most on. Go figure!