I date Halloween in Britain to sometime in the 1990s. I was living abroad by 1990, and we didn’t have it then. When I got back in the late 90s, we did, for some reason – pure commercialism, I guess; it's all been imported and forced on us. A bit like the Corn Laws of 1833 et seq. I also think it has something to do with festivals, and how lots of people get the taste for dressing up funny and partying, with any excuse. And why not? I mean, one thing London really needs is yet more pissed people wandering around looking wacky. So now we have the virulent anti-Catholic cat-scaring whiz-bang of Guy Fawkes and the crazy dressing up of Halloween all together in the space of five days.
My wife is from Northern Ireland. She tells me that kids there did a thing they called Halloween Dunders; it involved knocking on people’s doors and legging it. I mean, we used to do that all the time in London, or, at least, anytime we were bored. We called it Knock Down Ginger, for some reason. I can’t see the point of Halloween Dunders – it’s all trick and no treat. They’re pretty hardcore in Ulster.
I forgot for years that I’d once taken part in Halloween, that year in Dublin when I was nine. I can’t remember what my costume was. I do remember that we went out in a gang, not accompanied by adultts, and that we ranged round the few
streets near where we lived, in Clontarf. Our local haunted house, called Simla Lodge, scary even in the daylight all year round, must have looked even more spooky that night. I also remember knocking at some old woman’s door, and she
handed over the goodies then asked, puzzled, “Who are you?” For reasons that escape me, I named some local kid. “You’re not him,” she said, and the old crone made a grab for my mask, unsuccessfully. I stepped back and left, and thought no more of it.
Later, probably years later, I thought she must have had a good idea of who I was. Everybody knew everybody, at least by sight, in Clontarf, and she must have known – as everybody else seemed to – that I was one of those pathetic brothers from London, who’d been sent over to my aunt’s to allow my dad to die in peace, albeit at great length, of cancer. Though I wasn’t sure of the last part, I think I was pretty sure that our presence in Dublin had at least something to do with our dad having been in bed at home more or less permanently, for some time. I’d hardly been in Dublin long enough to acquire a Dub accent. So the nosey old biddy was just being a nosey old biddy; the things some people expect in return for a hard toffee – those yellow-wrapped ones from Quality Street that nobody likes – and a miserable apple…
A few years ago my friend Jerry, who’s from Pennsylvania, was living in London, up near Belsize Park which, if you don’t know it, is one of the wannabe posh areas leading up to truly posh Hampstead. The evening before Halloween one of his neighbours, a big-haired wannabe posh woman, appeared at his door, clutching a big bag. She informed him that, the next evening, her children and their friends would be calling to do trick or treat, and that he was to be so kaind as to present them with the small bag of goodies she extracted from the big bag, and passed over to him. Jerry took the bag. It slipped his mind that he wasn’t going to be home the next evening. Being a bodybuilder and a growing boy, he probably scoffed half the goodies before he even got back to the living room.
We both thought it was kind of laughable, a little pathetic, in fact. As a kid, Jerry and his friends went and did their trick-or-treating round their neighbourhoods, just as I did it that one Halloween in Dublin. Scary stuff happened, sort of – isn’t it meant to? There was probably the weirdo neighbour who wore socks and sandals, from whose place strange noises could be discerned once the ring of the doorbell had subsided. Was he playing basketball with a kid’s head? Was he behind the door with an axe? Or maybe just crouching there hoping those damn kids would believe he was out, and go away and bother somebody else? There were the usual rumours: kids taken to hospital with razorblades-stuck-in-apples wounds, kids frothing at the mouth and out of their minds on MDMA and acid – like any self-disrespecting acid-head was going to just give it away like that…
I believe there wasn’t ever too much of that kind of thing. Maybe it was all part of the Halloween myth – after all, kids are more likely to meet fucked-up people who like harming children than they are to happen across vampires, werewolves and zombies. But in Jerry’s day, and my single night, the point was that kids went out, with their friends, and did it. The scary stories gave us an idea that there was at least some risk involved – I mean, Halloween is supposed to be scary, remember? So we thought the visit from Jerry’s neighbour was kind of ludicrous; where was the spontaneity in that? And, we thought, later, where was the opportunity for a trick?
I’ve since had a similar visit from my own next-door neighbour. In 2008, her kids had called at the door going, “Trick or treat,” in bored monotones. Not doing Halloween at all – I think I thought of it in Britain as solely to do with adults partying and looking ridiculous – I was slightly puzzled, and had to get them to repeat it. If it looked to them like I’d never heard the three words, it seemed to me that they didn’t even know what they meant. There were five kids, I think, gathered somewhat awkwardly on our top step. Out on the pavement near our gate stood a gaggle of parents. Not being into Halloween, and not being the kind of household that keeps things like crisps, biscuits, cakes or stuff like that (they have a short, doomed existence in our house) I had nothing to offer. I didn’t think they’d have liked a Ryvita, some leftover pasta or a pickled walnut. Fortunately for all of us, the poor little mites didn’t seem to know how to trick: they came expecting treats only, with no contingency plan. I sometimes think all middle-ish-class kids expect to be treated, all the time, without having to do anything for it. It was a forlorn sight: kids, supposedly out to have some fun, dressed in costumes from the pound shop, mouthing words they didn’t understand at puzzled strangers, and their mums and dads a few yards away holding a health-and-safety committee. Really, where IS the fun in that? It was crap.
I’m not saying kids should be exposed to stranger danger on Halloween or any other night. If I had kids, I really wouldn't want them wandering round knocking on people’s doors. I’d still be worried about razor blade apples and soft drinks with MDMA and rat poison in them, just a bit, despite the urban legend nature of those stories, and about Gary Glitter answering the door. On the other hand, children should be able to have a proper childhood, and to be able to believe in imaginary things that grab them, enthuse them, scare them, even, a bit. What’s the answer? I don’t know that. But their Halloween experience ought to be better than the one I saw.
So in 2009 my neighbour came the day before, with the treats supply. I chickened out of giving her a condensed version of what I write above; she was just doing what she thought best, trying in her own way to make something of Halloween for her kids and their friends. I told her, truthfully, that I thought we might be out, but she kindly gave us the treats anyway, said it was no big deal, and that we could give them to somebody else if we weren’t in. I wasn’t at home, as it turned out. My wife duly handed over the trickless treats.
My neighbour didn’t come last year, and nor did the kids. Maybe they’ve grown out of it, or maybe have tumbled, basically, that it’s just crap.