Ghosts of Hallowe’en Past

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One of the roots of Hallowe’en is All Souls/All Saints, the night when spirits can pass through easily from one side to the other. I love the imagery of the Day of the Dead, with its marigolds and sugar skulls. Where I live, Hallowe’en trick-or-treating is a tradition connected to mummering. When my grandmother (born 1901) was a child, she would go door-to-door on New Year’s Eve and the kids would get homemade treats like fudge and toffee. When I was a kid, a few houses would still give out home made treats such as candy apples and caramel corn for Hallowe’en. That mostly ended when the media reported so many instances of unwrapped treats being tampered with – but close neighbours and our parents’ friends would still give us something special, with their name and address written on it. Most houses would give us a bag of chips or cheesies or mini chocolate bars. If a house didn’t give out treats, kids felt justified in playing a trick, like egging or toilet papering the house. You always had to have someone home on Hallowe’en night because if all the lights were out, you knew your house and yard would get plastered with something yucky to clean up! There was a brief spell of Hallowe’en getting out of hand – the occasional bonfire blocking the streets – but that is ancient history now.

With the current population shift, there just aren’t that many kids around. Neighbourhoods in my area got 200 kids at their door 20 years ago; now they get less than 50. Every year at my place, I hand out candy to about 35 kids from about age 2 to 16. Everyone used to say that Hallowe’en is for kids, but that’s certainly not the case now. I was discouraged from trick-or-treating when I was 11 because I was tall, and home owners would say, “Aren’t you getting to old for this?” as if I were taking candy away from babies 🙂 Now the biggest audience for Hallowe’en is 13 to 30 year olds – teens who love dances and parties, and students/younger adults who let loose at bars and night clubs. After that, it’s the home owners who love decorating their houses and yards with orange twinkly lights, inflatable ghosts, fake cobwebs in the trees, tombstones on the lawn and shrieking sound effects!

And you know what – I don’t think it’s all media hype and consumerism. Quite the opposite – I think it’s a night that appeals to all ages, grows with you, and celebrates creativity and cost-saving. Sure, you can buy an infinite amount of cheap plastic junk to decorate your house and yard, but you can also buy a pumpkin, make a jack-o-lantern, and get a couple of pies out of it besides! And yes, it is expected that you give candy to children, but since they get something at each house, you don’t have to give a lot. I am sure there are lots of parents who stress about buying their child an expensive costume each year, but making your own and being inventive are more prized. Now I suppose if I had a child in school I might be annoyed because each class typically has a party for Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and every kid brings in treats for the whole class, and parents try to outdo each other with their cookies and cupcakes. Then there are additional parties at daycare, church and every other group the kids go to! So it all gets overwhelming.

That is why Hallowe’en is perfect for teenagers. It’s not a parent/family thing any more, but a social thing that teens plan with each other. I understand why teens want to continue trick-or-treating into their mid-teens, because they are usually not allowed to have house parties, and their creativity needs unleashing! At my library, we’re having a Murder Mystery Party.  Some schools have a costume day or a school dance with a costume contest. And lots of cities have an anime, comic or sci-fi convention near Hallowe’en. I just love the costumes that teens come up with. My personal favourite was when Link dressed up as Patsy from the Holy Grail, and trotted around clacking coconut halves together – it had me in stitches! The teens either have the fun of keeping their costume a secret and doing a big reveal, or planning something with friends that keeps them busy for weeks. They get to show off their skills: generating ideas, scrounging for materials, constructing props, doing hair and make-up, and most tantalizingly, trying on new identities. By 18 or 19, Hallowe’en is the most anticipated night of the year, with parties and clubbing and all manner of depravity and fun. Think about it – drunkenness AND anonymity!

I have dressed up for Hallowe’en lots of times in my adult life – sometimes for work, or a party, or doing something with Link. Here are a few pictures, old and new:

I am the "Ant" in the middle

I am the “Ant” in the middle (still in high school)

Not a real Motorhead fan at the time - just trying to look tough...

Trying to look tough (university days)

Very easy and effective costume!

Pierrot

Loosely based on Aladdin Sane

Loosely based on Aladdin Sane

Thrifted character - I remind myself of Loonette from the Big Comfy Couch!

Thrifted clown character

A mod Charlie's Angel?

A mod Charlie’s Angel? in vintage polyester

When all else fails, buy a hat

And when all else fails, buy a hat!

I do have a major gripe with commercial costumes and how they contribute to gender stereotypes and the sexualization of children. I was very pleased last year when Disney stopped labelling its costumes for boys and girls, and said they were now all just for “kids.” But I still hate how male costumes are action-oriented, like pirates and vampires and doctors, while female costumes are usually “sexy pirate,” “sexy vampire” and “sexy nurse.” Often kids’ costumes are just scaled down versions of those. I cringe when I think of the Indian and Gypsy costumes we used to wear when I was a kid. Somehow ethnic stereotypes keep popping back up every Hallowe’en. Boo Hiss!

It occurs to me as I write this, how much dressing up and role-playing we do outside of Hallowe’en.  First there’s the holiday stuff – New Year’s Eve, St. Patrick’s Day, Canada Day, tacky Christmas sweaters. There are all the costumes we wear for special occasions: the graduation cap and gown, the interview suit, the bridesmaid dress. There are work uniforms: nurse, mechanic, cook. There’s sports gear: swimming, golf, hunting, roller derby. There are costumes for volunteering: has anyone ever been Brown Owl or Akela? There are, of course, expected outfits: funerals, rock concerts, recitals. And what could signify a change in your life better than a drastic haircut?

This Hallowe’en weekend I will be helping out with the Murder Mystery party, going to a Sci-Fi-themed symphony, watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show (of course) and on the day of, handing out treats. Happy Hallowe’en, everybody!

16 comments

  1. I love the idea of Halloween. It took off here just over a decade ago. But is resisted by many people as being “American”. Others argue against that with the All Soul’s Eve etc. I just like the fun of dressing up, decorations and lollies. My youngest loves it too. He is in California at moment. It has always been a desire of his to visit the states and see Halloween over there. He is stoked – has just bought a costume.

    I decorate our house and go all out with lollies. Last year hardly any kids came. I was so disappointed. This year I asked my son if I could give away all our decorations, seeing as he is in the US and there are fewer kids coming around. He said he’d be very sad. So I’ll put a few up this year. Just enough to let any stray treatseekers know they can get some lollies from me. Next year when my darling son is home, I’ll put them out again.

    • Didn’t know your youngest is away from home for a while. Sounds like just the thing! Hope he gets to party properly on the 31st (or whichever weekend day the partying happens – maybe Fri & Sat both!) I have a few indoor decorations for around the doorway. Nothing extravagant but it wouldn’t feel right to do nothing.

  2. Fiona

    I love all your variety of ‘looks’ over the years! And it’s very interesting to look at how often our society ‘costumes’ us with uniforms, special event attire etc. I was thinking that last week when teachers at our school had to wear academic gowns and colours to speech night. A friend had a 50th party two weeks ago and went in a ‘Sexy Red Riding Hood’ costume! (At 50 though, a different matter to 12 year olds!)

    As Lucinda said, Halloween is very hit-or-miss here. I always buy lollies ‘in case’…but often, there’s not a single knock on the door. At school, many kids are not allowed to celebrate because parents are opposed to the ‘cheap, commercial junk’ and bad food. I’m intrigued that in your childhood, houses that were darkened on Halloween (no-one home) were fair game for egging, flour etc! Here, the houses that celebrate will be kept lit/decorated and kids know not to go to darkened houses or they are likely to get a telling off!

    It’s a good way to look at it to see all the creativity that happens instead of the commercialisation. My 12 year has an Irish best-friend and our Irish friends go ‘all out’ for Halloween! So the kids have been planning their costumes for months. I refused to let J buy one so he’s spent a long time trying options, discussing with friends and so on. He’s settled on ‘The Joker’ and had great fun trying on innumerable clothes/accessories to make up his look. But then he wanted to buy a wig & make-up, so I still shelled out $35! We’ll be trick-or-treating with our Irish friends this weekend. Happy Halloween!

    • Yes, I too should have said how much I love your looks over the years!

    • Yep, we did the same thing – always ended up shelling out for some Hallowe’en accessories – but then Link ended up being a semi-professional cosplayer 🙂 As far as mature folks in “sexy” costumes in public: not my thing, but no objections. Teachers in caps and gowns – whoa, I can’t imagine – or rather, yes I can – at Hogwart’s! Were you part of it? If so, how did it feel? There are some families who don’t allow their kids to go trick or treating because the kids get enough treats and have fun in their classroom and daycare parties, but they are very much in the minority. Mostly parents will control how many houses their kids go to – maybe just around their own block. The days of trickery are over – now kids just skip houses with all the lights out and there is no mischief. If anything, adults/parents will complain about neighbours who darken their houses and don’t give out treats, and mutter that they are cheap or mean. On the other hand, it is understood that the owners might be working night shift or be out of town, etc. When you say lollies, do you mean literally lollipops, or is that a blanket term for candy?

      • Fiona

        LOL! ‘Lollies’ is a blanket term here for candy 🙂

        I was supposed to be wearing my academic gown & university colours to speech night, but that was the night I was atrociously sick and didn’t end up attending.

        But yes, I have an academic gown in my wardrobe now. I bought one this year as it was cheaper than repeat-hiring for school events! I feel a little perturbed about the symbolism of it all, linked in as it is with the imagery/mythology of an expensive independent school. At least we don’t have to wear them at Assembly, as we used to do at the school where I first met Mr D.

        Now that I think about it though…an academic gown would be the perfect base for a Halloween costume!!

      • Wow, you are required to wear this at various school occasions – I can’t imagine – not done except for graduations here. It must lend the events tremendous gravity!

  3. EcoCatLady

    I too love the photos of your costumes over the years. Sounds like you and Link are very creative costumers! I have very mixed feelings about Halloween – BTW, when did the spelling change? There never used to be an apostrophe… at least I’ve never seen it before the past few years.

    Anyhow, I used to LOVE the holiday – we would do Halloween recitals at the music school where I worked, and all of the students and teachers would dress up in costumes – it was lots of fun. And I used to love trick-or-treaters too, but in recent years it started getting out of control. I mean, in the past it was for neighborhood kids, and I thought it was great. But around 5 years ago, it suddenly changed, and instead of kids walking from house to house, people started driving the kids around – so vans and SUVs would pull up and unload dozens of children. I went from getting around 75 kids to getting several hundred. I’m not sure I would mind getting so many kids if they were from the neighborhood, but something about it just started to feel wrong to me. I’ve heard that someone came up with trick or treating “apps” where they listed all of the “good” neighborhoods, so parents could drive their kids to the places with the best candy, and I sorta wonder if our neighborhood got listed or something, because the change was sudden.

    But the worst was that we started getting adult trick or treaters – not talking about teenagers, but actual adults, who didn’t even bother to wear costumes and often didn’t even say “Trick or Treat” – honestly some looked homeless, and others looked like outright criminals. I don’t know if that had anything to do with the vans full of children or what, but It sorta freaked me out, and I started to actually be afraid to open the door not knowing what sort of person could be standing there… what if they had a gun… yadda, yadda, yadda. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but the whole experience totally ruined the holiday for me, so I don’t participate anymore – I just turn off the lights and pretend not to be home.

    It does make me sad though because it used to be so much fun, and now there are only a few houses on the block that participate. So now parents pretty much have to drive the kids around because the houses giving out candy are few and far between. I dunno… maybe I’m making more of this than it is, but it just seems like whoever’s creating these apps – it’s really backfiring, because our neighborhood went from totally into the holiday to near complete boycott. I guess it’s like anything else – greed ruins things. Sigh.

    • Thanks. Hallowe’en is the old spelling and without the apostrophe is a newer one! We have had parents driving kids around to different neighbourhoods for many years (pre-apps). I live at the very edge of town and I can sympathize because the country kids may have to walk half a mile along the highway for each house. It’s just not safe. But with the population shift to fewer children, it has all settled down. I remember you live in an area where there is poverty and high needs, so Hallowe’en must be tied up with need/greed and all kinds of mixed feelings. Now that you’ve written this, I am going to buy extra food for the food bank this week!

  4. So sad. You are right. Too many people exploiting it ruins it. I can be 99.9% confident there’d be no guns here. It never even enters my mind. Thanks to our gun control. I so wish I would have 75 kids. If there were homeless people, I’d probably be giving snack foods. But I say that because we don’t have homeless here in our area.

    • EcoCatLady

      Totally jealous of your gun control laws. And while, in principle, I relish the idea of feeding the homeless, a non-trivial percentage of them are either drug addicts or have psychiatric problems – it’s a complete failure of the system to care for those who need it the most – but it also means that their behavior can be unpredictable and sometimes violent. So as much as I want them to be cared for, there’s also a genuine personal safety concern. Sigh. My kingdom for a more humane society.

  5. I love your varied costumes from over the years!

    Hallowe’en has only become a big thing over the past decade or so, and now it seems to be getting bigger every year. As you said though mainly for teens and older, we had no children round trick or treating last year and I think only one the year before. I’ve never done it myself as Father said it was akin to begging! He did always carve us a turnip though, we never had a pumpkin, mainly because father didn’t grow them!

    • Thanks, TD! My parents trick-or-treated when they were young and even my grandparents had a similar tradition. My dad said his family also carved turnips and other veg, too!

  6. jbistheinitial

    Halloween hasn’t traditionally been a big deal in the UK – or at least, the dressing up, trick or treating bit hasn’t – and a lot of people like to decry its recent adoption as ‘commercialism gone mad’ and the Americanisation of our culture. But just today I was thinking about how much I like that it’s become a thing here, I think anything in these dark days of autumn that involves getting together, lighting candles, having fun, eating too much… that’s all good stuff, and something our ancestors would have been doing going back hundreds (thousands, probably) of years.

    • I agree! Do you do anything for Guy Fawkes? We don’t have that – everyone loves bonfires and fireworks, but not so much the weird effigy burning! We need another holiday, or maybe combine it better with Hallowe’en.

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