For a few weeks before the actual date arrives, on the last day of October, shops push all manner of Halloween accessories onto a public eager for scares. Such accoutrements as scary skeletons, creepy cobwebs and wonky witch hats, pack the shelves in the spookiest aisle in the store. Walking down such an aisle in some supermarkets is a more ghastly experience than a ride on the ghost train.
And it’s free.
All of this razzamatazz is a world away from the Halloween of my childhood.
Back then, the only sign that the big night was approaching came when the local greengrocer dragged a tea chest full of swedes onto the pavement outside his shop (we called the base vegetable for our lanterns a bagey or snanny, but never a swede).
This only started about October 28th, and it was about as far as things went.
Imagine, if you will
So, at the risk of terrifying younger readers, imagine, if you will, a Halloween without pumpkins, costumes or trick or treat.
We set about carving our lanterns after school on the evening itself.
When I was very young, my older brother hollowed my lantern out for me, and we both nibbled on the scrapings. I soon became adept at making my own lantern though and, with the swede a hollow shell, I set about carving my face, having first assured my mother that I would take great care with the pointed knife I would use.
After deep concentration, and a lot of tongue protruding, I finally finished my lantern, the rudimentary facial features of which added to its creepiness.
On the big night, I’d go out into the street, where I would join fellow lantern-carrying urchins, who gathered beneath the dim glow of a street lamp at the bottom of the back lane.
Here we told spooky stories to each other, with extra scare points being awarded for those who could pass their yarn off as having actually happened. I have a vivid recollection of a tale told by one girl in our group.
It ran along these lines.
There was a story in the news about a woman who climbed a ladder to get into an old empty house, but when she got to the top, she turned into a skeleton and her bones fell to the ground.
That terrified me, because in my child’s mind, I figured that if it had been in the news, then it must have actually happened.
Groups of lanterneers
After we’d scared ourselves silly with stories, we would take our lanterns around the streets, perhaps encountering other groups of lanterneers on the way.
Trick or treat was still some way in the future and so, while we were happy to shake down householders for cash via Penny for the Guy for Guy Fawkes’ Night, and carol singing at Christmas, Halloween was a strictly non-commercial event.
While there was no financial gain to be had at Halloween, I did enjoy the occasion for the thrill of listening to those creepy tales in an atmosphere of cold air and candlelight, and because it was the one night of the year I was entrusted with a naked flame.
I was fascinated by fire as a child, and the unpleasant smell of burning horsehair from old upholstered furniture is up there with those of freshly mown grass and carbolic soap as well-remembered smells from my formative years.
Not long after I outgrew those Halloween gatherings, I noticed that kids with lanterns had started knocking on doors and, once opened, a small pre-pubescent choir, whose voices ranged from with gusto to shy and mumbling, would regale the householder with the following rhyme:
The sky is blue
The grass is green
Have you got a penny
This request for hard cash laid the foundations for the importation of the whole trick or treat extravaganza from across the Atlantic, which in turn led to the mass marketing of the event we see today.
Against this background, you might be expecting me to decry the whole Americanization of Halloween, but to do so would be hypocritical, as I have partaken in it, and besides I quite enjoy it. So I embraced this new version of Halloween, unlike some other Stateside imports, such as baby showers and Black Friday.
Memories in a box
I still have in a box a collection of masks, various skeletons, bats, spiders and plastic pumpkin lanterns that I brought home from my mother’s house after she died. They hold fond memories of Halloween, which turned into quite a big night there, first when her grandchildren were small and then her great-grandchildren.
The walls of the living room were adorned with the aforementioned scary accessories, and even my grandma, who was in her late seventies at the time, got into the spirit of things by wearing a black bin liner over her cardigan. There was always a huge pan of minestrone soup on the go, and the dining table groaned in a ghostly manner under the weight of plates of sandwiches, pies and quiches.
Alongside these stood piles of cakes and biscuits that were on the forbidden list until crusts had been eaten. After the food, the kids would embark on a trick or treat expedition, while we adults enjoyed a few chilled beers. A good time was had by all.
Nowadays, Halloween is geared as much towards adults as it is children. Fancy dress costumes of all kinds are available, as well as bloodthirsty accompaniments, like swords, maces, bloody bandages and axes. This is all a bit gory to me; I prefer ghostly over grisly; The Sixth Sense over Saw.
The little house
Part of the reason for this might be down to a Halloween experience I had back in my childhood, as I stood with friends beneath that dim lamp. At the bottom of our street, there were open fields that led to the river. Standing alone in these fields was a tiny brick-built structure with a pitched tiled roof and two windows. The building still stands, and I know now that it is an electricity sub-station of sorts, but as children we called it after what it looked like: the little house.
We were swapping ghostly tales, and a girl in our group, the aforementioned storyteller, as it happens, told us that she had seen a strange man go into the little house earlier that day, and a light had just gone out there. She intimated that he could be standing at the window, staring at us across the open ground.
“I wonder if he’s watching us,” she said. As we all looked into the darkness towards the building, barely able to see anything, but allowing our imaginations to serve as our eyes, a delightful spasm of terror ran down my little spine.
Whatever you do this Halloween, stay safe and have fun.
(Originally published in Medium)