Today I have been to see my eldest son perform at my local theatre. This is quite a big deal for us, because for years he has been anti-any form of theatre visiting. I blame the pantomimes. After all that ‘it’s-behind-you-ing’, shouting and explosions, booing and hissing and dressing up he decided that shows of any kind were to be avoided at all costs. This includes all forms of puppets, clowns, people dressed as Disney characters, any kind of darkened space where a performance may (or may not) take place (including church services) and Hallowe’en dress-ups (including houses, people and shops).
When I was asked to provide a costume for Sam to be a Zombie in the performance, I had to take a deep breath. It’s not only that I was worried about how Sam might take to being dressed as a monster, but also that I, personally, have a long standing difficulty with most things Hallowe’en. Now I don’t mind a bit of larking about and wearing silly costumes (after all, I went to a dress up party myself only last weekend), it’s just that I think the whole Hallowe’en thing has got out of hand.
For a start, I object to the racks and racks of sweets standing there in the shops at this time of year. We don’t make much of Hallowe’en in our house, but even my daughter has started to show a general sense of excitement about the sweets. There is this creeping commercialisation in our society that sticks in my throat. All the traditional things about Hallowe’en, like apple bobbing, seem to have been flung out of the window, in favour of selling plastic pumpkins for children to carry their sweets from house to house.
And while I’m at it, what about all those real pumpkins? I don’t for a moment think that they are all going to be turned into soup. Or pie. They will sit on people’s doorsteps, or window sills, glowing away (in various states of competitive carving) until they rot and are thrown in the dustbin.
When Sam was born I found myself noticing how many cheap and nasty children’s costumes were suddenly on sale, ready for the 31st October. I also found myself looking a little more closely at what the costumes were. I was going through a phase of questioning the slogans we put on our children’s chests at the time (after my sister in law gave him a romper that said something along the lines of ‘it wasn’t me’ – you know the sort of thing that is marketed towards parents of boys), and I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to dress my baby, or my young child, as some sort of demon, some little evil being. I don’t see my child that way, I don’t want others to see my child that way and I certainly don’t want him seeing himself that way, even for just one evening.
And I don’t understand trick or treating. How is it that so many people don’t see it as begging with menaces? How is it that, for one night of the year, it is deemed acceptable to go out in the dark, knock on the doors of people you don’t know and ask for sweeties? What happens when those little ones, who were taken around the streets by their parents, turn into big ones who want to go around, knocking on doors on their own?
There is this peculiar strand in English culture that doesn’t turn the world on its head and laugh in the face of death, but throws flour, eggs and dog mess at other people’s houses instead. These children, who we taught to knock on doors in the dark, dressed as ghosts and ghouls, start taking it all a little too seriously. One of the things that I have pointed out to my children is that we don’t trick or treat around here because there are an awful lot of old people, who most likely find the whole thing genuinely frightening.
Now I’m not sitting in judgement on anyone who wants to do the whole Hallowe’en thing. Sweets aside, I can see the attraction. When I was about ten, my sister and I started up a ghost club with the children who lived down the road from us. It didn’t have much to do with ghosts, to be perfectly honest, it was more of a vehicle for my sister and I to compete with each other in writing the club magazine, and arrange dates and times that we were going to explore the churchyard opposite in the dark (not allowed), and we decided to have a Hallowe’en party.
Obviously we needed a pumpkin lantern, but in rural Devon in 1982, such a thing was not to be found, so we were advised to visit one of the local farmers who might be able to provide us with an alternative. We discovered, later that day, after walking about five miles between various village farms, that the mangelworzel was not the ideal vegetable, despite its rotund nature, for lanterns.
I can’t really remember much about the party itself – I think there were some attendees – but what I can remember was my mum and grandma, who was staying with us at the time, joining in with great aplomb, prancing around the garden in the dark, dressed in sheets declaring ‘woo woo’ in dramatic fashion. I also remember the one and only trick or treat attempt, which involved my friend James tying his fishing line to our door knocker so that he could rouse the house invisibly, in great Beano tradition. Unfortunately he didn’t anticipate his line being quite so visible to the naked eye, or the fact that I would pull it in with such glee (goodness only knows how far away he was hiding, it seemed to go on for miles), or that I would hand it back to him with a smirk at school the next day.
In many ways it is thanks to Sam, that our family has never come under any pressure to join in with Hallowe’en. So, after I took a deep breath about the Zombie costume, I realised that this show, this ‘Not-So Scary’ creative dance and film holiday course could do us all a favour. Because by getting dressed up and pretending to be someone or something he’s not, even if he was the only one who scorned the face paint, he is learning not to be afraid of the masks and makeup. That under the scary exterior it’s just pretend. It didn’t stop him pausing at the entrance to Tesco, mind you. The cauldron display and the be-costumed assistant still gave him a bit of a fright, and we nearly had a tussle at the doorway, but still. It’s a journey and we’re not at the end yet.