When I was a kid we didn’t do Halloween in England. It was an American thing, something I read about in American comic books, or saw on the odd TV programme, and that was all, or so I thought till I went to live with my aunt in Dublin. They had Halloween there, for sure: it was Guy Fawkes Night, basically, but with Guy Fawkes luckily absent from the pyrotechnic proceedings, such as they were – few bonfires, and with fireworks rare. I didn’t realise it till years later, but of course it’s because Guy Fawkes was a Catholic, and not just any old Catholic, but one who’d tried to blow up the Protestant king and government of England. They were hardly going to celebrate barbecuing him in Catholic Ireland.
Fireworks were also rather hard to get in the Republic. Southerners, it was said, went on mysterious missions ‘up north’, enacting their own Gunpowder Plot. Those who refused, in those days, to contribute to the British economy, might well have regarded it as treason.
I date Halloween in Britain to sometime in the 1990s. I was living abroad by 1990, and we didn’t have it in Britain then. When I got back in the late 90s, we did, for some reason – pure commercialism, I guess; it was imported and forced on a mostly willing public, unlike, say, income tax or the death penalty. I think it had something to do with the growth of festivals, and how lots of people got the taste for dressing up funny and partying and getting out of it, 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. Perfect. If you like that kind of thing.
My wife is from Northern Ireland. She tells me that when she was young, 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; poor old Ginger, whoever he ever was. 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’m not sure what put it out of my mind so thoroughly – it may have been the circumstances that had sent us there, away from our parents. I can’t remember what my costume was, but my brother, who remembers these things, recalls that it was Batman. Not particularly spooky, without all the post-90s deconstruction of the Batman psyche. He wasn’t a civil rights-infringing vigilante back then, just a regular millionaire who caught crooks after biffing them. I remember that we went out in a gang, not accompanied by adults, and that we ranged round the few streets near where we lived, in Clontarf on the north side of Dublin’s Liffey estuary. Our local haunted house, called Simla Lodge, scary even in the daylight all year round, must have looked even more spooky that night.
I 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. No self-respecting masked avenger was going to let that happen. I knew that much. I stepped back and left, and thought no more of it.
Years later, I thought she must have had a good idea of who I was. Everybody knew everybody, at least by sight, in those few streets in Clontarf, and she must have known that I was one of those pathetic brothers from London. We’d been sent over to live with my Dublin aunt while my dad died in peace, albeit at great length, of cancer. Though I didn’t know anything about 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 – firstly in recovery from a road accident – 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 an apple straight out of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, which I tossed at my brother’s head.
At the start of the noughties, my friend Jerry, who’s from Pennsylvania, was living in London, near Belsize Park which is one of the wannabe posh areas leading up to truly posh Hampstead. The evening before Halloween one of his neighbours, a wannabe posh woman, appeared at his door, clutching a big bag. It wasn’t a Halloween fright wig she was wearing; she just had big hair, so Jerry relaxed. 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’d probably scoffed half the goodies before he was even back in the living room.
We both thought it was kind of laughable. 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 Halloween meant to be scary? 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 living room 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 screwed-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 – it’s supposed to be scary, remember? Where was the spontaneity in the venture that began with a visit from Jerry’s neighbour? Where was the fun supposed to be? And, we thought, later, where was the opportunity for a trick?
In 2009, my next-door neighbour made a similar visit. The year before, her kids and their friends 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 getting drunk and looking ludicrous – 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 slice of Ryvita crispbread, 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 these days 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 wouldn’t want them wandering round knocking on people’s doors; call me a spoilsport, but I probably wouldn’t let them do it. 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 2010 my neighbour again 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 the following year, and nor did the kids. Maybe they’d grown out of it, or maybe had realised that, with no trick and such poor treats, it’s just crap.