My mum never had much truck with Halloween. It was one of those American things, an import to be held at arm’s length. Something feral about those kids roaming up and down the street – and didn’t you hear about Mrs Hobble from Briar Cross and how they blinded her Yorky Terrier with rotten eggs when she refused to hand over the Haribo?
Night of suburban terror. Prime net curtain twitching time. Ten-year-old me stood silent by the door listening for the echo of teenage voices rolling like tin cans down the street. I still dream of local ruffians trying to break into my childhood home and them making off with all the good clobber, me frantically locking doors and shutting windows. The trace of this nightmare has embedded itself into my subconscious. Growing up, trick or treating was accepted if the extortion was carried out by the nice middle class kids who had been lovingly kitted out with winter jumpers and mitts, but was too close to thievery for those in nylons and trainers. Now it’s a rarity to hear anyone knock on the door at all.
But enough of class and recurring nightmares, for how much of Halloween is actually the stuff of terror? We saturate it with enough sparkle and tat to banish even a flicker of fear. It is in the everyday that most of us choke on panic, when we stand outside the exam hall, when we leave the consultation room or when we finally receive a long awaited answer. No, Halloween is a time for forgetting these fears. It’s a night of permissiveness, for the wholesale embrace of bad taste, where every cliché assumes symbolic authority, where children get high on sugar and adults get low on booze. Halloween is a time for escaping the cage of self-consciousness. Please choose the closest fit for your repressed self: vampire, werewolf, witch or zombie?
The Halloween party is a staple of the social year, and depending on your stage of life, in a hierarchy of enforced cheer, it comes a possible second after New Years and closely beats your birthday. It’s certainly the best time to don a disguise and raunch it up with impunity. What better time of year could there be for pulling? String on a false nose and dust off those PVC shorts and you’re away. We can certainly taste the pornographic in its repetitive shtick. Look at the way the same stories and tropes work themselves out year after year, flick after flick; the masochistic desire to scare ourselves silly, evoke bodily violence and drip fake bodily fluids all over our face. We become sexier and deadlier versions of ourselves, engaging in an en-mass role-play and gain satisfaction from the inevitable unhappy ending.
Halloween is the most Hollywood of all festivals, and seemingly a yearly marketing drive for American consumer culture. At no other time of year would I willingly spend money on such obviously useless kipple as luminous pumpkin earrings or a witch shaped hole puncher. It’s a night for the ephemeral, for the metamorphic power of cinema to enter our lives. The shorter a product’s lifespan the better: it reassures us that the enchantment will soon be over. It’s not all cheap crap from Poundland though: we get creative when we make our own costumes, even if they only last a few hours. They are made in order to fall apart. As the evening progresses we enjoy the spectacle of artifice unraveling, and delight in our clothes being ripped up and off. It’s a celebration of the freedom to be found in embracing dirt, rubbish and decay.
The historical meaning of the Christian and Pagan festival I don’t want to go into, but its roots lie in the ancient notion that the dead return to be amongst us, for one night. Permeable worlds, the real and unreal combine, the shadows on the wall become the lights in the bar and they dance off that sexy mother eater’s face; yes that’s right, the zombie who you think you may have pulled last year. In the West we put so much distance between the dead and us. The thought of death is taboo until our mortality knocks unexpectedly at the door. Most of us have little idea what a dead body really looks like, or what it may be like to suffer violent injuries. This masquerade is about flirting with destruction, and making fun in the face of our own demise. After all, it takes hard work, keeping things together day after day. We all need a time to let things hang loose, to let ourselves unravel; dropping the list of personality traits and profile stats we’ve made for ourselves.
Uneasy in our innocence we put the tat between us and tomorrow, clutch our punch and drink the worry away. So what is Halloween for? What can we do with it? We can forget ourselves, get high, get naked, revel in destruction and extremely poor taste, shock each other and ourselves and sleep with a vampire. Most of us will survive, and somehow prove that for now we are immune from death. If we are lucky that rustle in the coat pile will be the only thing disturbing us the day after.