The latest of Mr Attwood’s now-legendary Pumpkin Assemblies on 3 October heralded the start of preparations for Halloween while the switch back to Greenwich Mean Time last weekend has created the early dusks which best suit Halloween rituals.
The popularity of Halloween as a festival in the UK has increased exponentially since the start of the millennium, largely as a result of growing American influences on our popular culture. For several reasons, however, Halloween has as many detractors as enthusiasts. Some deplore the apparently unquestioning adoption of a transatlantic festival as just another example of the British susceptibility to American cultural borrowings. Others decry the flagrant commercialism of an event which provides opportunistic retailers with a chance to cash in during the traditional shopping lull between the summer holidays and the pre-Christmas spending spree (beginning now, of course, on ‘Black Friday’). Some practising Christians condemn Halloween as a form of dabbling with the occult and some psychologists have argued that it is too frightening for young children and causes them psychological damage.
While noticing the retailing frenzy building up and watching the ping-pong of opinion play out in the news media (as I write, for example, the newspapers carry headlines about the latest attacks in the clown craze), I ask myself ‘what might the educational value of Halloween be?’
Looking again at the four lines of attack, a counterpoint for each is ready to hand. While we may feel uneasy at the speed with which fashions in popular culture change, especially when they do so through imports, we may remind ourselves that one generation’s import becomes the next generation’s tradition. Just think of the Christmas tree, for example. Halloween has overtaken Guy Fawkes’ Night in popularity in the UK, which – by upstaging a festival with its roots in anti-Catholic xenophobia – may have its positive side in today’s multi-faith society.
True, Halloween is a bonanza for sales of the tacky and the synthetic, with UK spending on its paraphernalia increasing about 30-fold since 2001. On the plus side, however, it brings with it opportunities, increasingly rare in our time-poor lives, for families to share a crafting session together as they construct jack o’lanterns and for children to go and play outside after dark – and even to meet the neighbours.
While some extreme excursions in Halloween mayhem undoubtedly tap into dangerous undercurrents of occultism, the festival itself has its roots firmly planted in mainstream Christianity – in the vigil on the evening (or ‘even’) before All Hallows or All Saints Day, which marked the beginning of a two-day period dedicated to remembering the dead.
And this dimension of Halloween may be the most valuable to us, beyond the mere pleasure of the party. As Atul Gawande has so persuasively argued in his recent book ‘Being Mortal’, we live in an age when dying and death have become taboo subjects, banished from sight in a sanitised world. Might it be that Halloween provides a unique shared cultural forum in which fears and feelings about death can be safely explored?
The recent backlash against Sainsbury’s ‘Dark Side’ promotion of axeman costumes for three year olds reminds us that for retailers, as for writers and film directors, there is a fine line between entertainment and exploitation in the world of ghosts and ghouls, and the potential for things to be taken too far is ever-present. However, provided the tall tales and antics, the imagery and the influences at work remain true to the feast’s time-honoured traditions, the customs of Halloween can provide the kind of serious fun, with a message and a meaning, that we associate with the best lessons.
Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress
Atul Gawande, ‘Being Mortal’