I am writing this on Halloween. The shops are full of pumpkins and strangely wrapped sweets to give to trick or treaters..
Some of my neighbours’ houses have spooky decorations and carved pumpkins on the doorstep. They look like macabre heads. (The pumpkins, that is. Not the neighbours. Obviously.) It’s all very jolly in a perverse way.
“Come in if you dare,” says one banner.
To be honest, I still find this a bit strange. Trick or treating was never part of my childhood.
It’s good fun, though, with small children dressed up as Dracula, or a skeleton or a witch. Though I think my favourite was the Scary Princess. Cobwebs on the tiara and a black ribbon round her throat. You could see the family tussle, the eventual compromise.
You get to meet neighbours you otherwise wouldn’t. For years I regularly waved to a woman in the supermarket I only knew as Dracula’s mother.
In 2020, however, it’s a muted affair. Only one or two neighbours have put their spookiest foot forward.
I take my hat off to them. Definitely the Dunkirk spirit. Their witches and skeletons have cheered me enormously on my exercise walk in these drear, grey days.
Fewer pumpkins and ghosts there may be. But, by golly, each and every one is a class act.
What’s more, this is definitely the acceptable face of spooky.
The trick or treaters are polite, even shy. They might collect enough chocolate to see them through to Christmas – my sympathies are with their parents – but even if you say “trick”, they don’t actually terrorise you.
At least not outside a movie.
And the ghosts are sweethearts. Positively welcoming, I’d say. Not a bad dream in sight.
What a contrast to my own Halloween experience. My first big teenage party was a Halloween dance, held in a church hall, next to the graveyard. You got there down an uneven path, unlit, with a mist coming up from the river.
When you arrived there was a notice on the door. “Please keep the noise down. We don’t want to wake the neighbours”.
Put me off parties for years.
As for Halloween itself – well, I’m no fan of horror movies. But there was something special about it. If not exactly exciting, it was a time of uncertainty, creatively chaotic.
It still seems as if doors in my imagination open around Halloween. Sometimes I even became a mystery to myself. It’s very good for writing. Often feels like a real gift. (Hold that thought.)
The Halloween Festival
Actually, Halloween is All Hallows Eve. Like Christmas Eve it’s the opening of three days of celebration, ideas and general junketing. The big one, like Christmas Day, is All Hallows, or All Saints Day on 1st November. There are church services to celebrate all the saints, known and unknown.
In some countries All Saints Day is a public holiday.
James Frazer in The Golden Bough suggested that the festival was older than Christianity. The church, he argued, had simply absorbed the observance of a Celtic Autumn Festival, Samhain. He also thought that Samhain was the festival of the dead. Others seem to see it as an extended Harvest Festival, when the fruits were gathered and animals brought down from the summer pasture.
In the context of Halloween, the third day, November 2nd, is All Souls Day or, sometimes, The Day of the Dead.
In some countries, it is traditional to visit your late friends and family and have a party where they are buried on the Day of the Dead. When I travelled a lot, I was once met from the plane by my interpreter and taken to exactly such a celebration. There were several families there, with candles and even a picnic. The mood was serious, but not at all spooky, and very affectionate. It was an honour to be included. A lovely memory.
There is something unsettling about this time of year, especially in these latitudes, when it is dark by mid afternoon. Leaves are falling but not yet gone entirely. Some trees are brilliantly coloured. And just sometimes, you have that unearthly spotlight effect, strong low sun under a cloud roof.
I took this photo this morning. It is a street near me. The spotlight effect had passed by the time I lined up my camera. But the blaze of autumn colour is very much evident.
In the UK, we have a week of the last of the outdoor parties – from Halloween (or even the day before on 30th October) to Guy Fawkes Night on 5th November.
It’s also called Bonfire Night – or BoneFire Night, as Diana Wynne Jones calls it in her unforgettable Witch Week. In spite of the bonfire and fireworks and staying out late, I’d never cared for the 5th November, “gunpowder, treason and plot”.
So finding Witch Week made me feel both relieved that I wasn’t alone, and satisfied that there was a good reason for my antipathy. And gave me a lifelong enthusiasm for the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones.
Mischief Night and…
The day before Halloween, or sometimes before Guy Fawkes, is occasionally called Mischief Night. Sometimes Mischief Night is even transferred to May.
The point about is that children and, even more so, adolescents are allowed to play pranks without reprisals.
It may be ancient, it may have started in the eighteenth century. I seems to be a tradition in New Jersey. These days it’s largely forgotten.
… October Craziness, Especially When Writing
Here’s the thing. I told you that my creativity burns brightly but goes a bit haywire around this time. Sometimes great stuff emerges – but I never feel quite in charge of it.
Well let me take you back to October 1938, the USA. A writer called Howard Koch is employed to adapt an old-fashioned boring book into a radio play, and to do it fast. He works on it for three days. Then on Tuesday 25th October he goes back to producer, John Houseman, and says it’s hopeless. The book is impossibly turgid and boring. And set in Britain.
Houseman has a problem. This is part of a low budget series, ostensibly under the control of a Wunderkind actor director. But the young genius is off rehearsing a stage play – 36 hours straight – and has no time to look at Koch’s work. So Houseman gives Koch major editorial notes. Koch works through the night. And on Wednesday 26th October, the cast under senior, non-Wunderkind actor Paul Howard, rehearse it. The story is now set in New Jersey. A recording is sent to the Wunderkind.
It is a disaster.
The Wunderkind listens and says the only way to save the show is to beef up the fake news bulletins in the first act. (Are you with me yet?) He pushes off back to his rehearsal, making no concrete suggestions.
Writer, producer and senior actor work on the thing frantically, together with the cast and the technicians.
If you want to see the decisions they made and why, there’s a fabulous article in the Smithsonian Magazine.
Everyone thinks it’s dull. “It’ll put ’em to sleep,” says an actor.
Chaos to Catharsis and possibly Infinity
Mid afternoon, October 30th, Wunderkind arrives for last rehearsal, leading to live performance on air later that night. He shouts a lot, revising up to the last minute. He slows down the opening even more – to the despair of poor old Houseman.
And he restores one of the speeches they’ve got rid of, giving it to actor Kenneth Delmar, who can do “a pitch perfect” Franklin D Roosevelt.”
And it is broadcast.
Remember, this is Mischief night 1938. War is bubbling away, ready to boil over in Europe. People are already on edge and more.
Is this a deliberate adolescent prank to make them sit up and take notice? I don’t think so, though the casting of Delmar was certainly a bit sharp. I think what happens is that tumble of out-of control creativity, I’ve been talking about.
People who tune in after the start of the programme don’t realise this is a play. They hear a news bulletin and they think. well, it’s real news bulletins.
For this is The War of the Worlds, by Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air at CBS radio. And by Halloween morning it is making newspaper headlines for having caused a nationwide panic.
It made Orson Welles a household name. It made radio history.
And it took only a week to put together.
That dangerous, exciting October week of Halloween.
And there was I, saying to myself “Oh, that’s what happened with The War of the Worlds”. Duh! You’ve also got Mischief Night – more or less – on 12th Night. I haven’t read that particular Diana Wynne Jones, so thank you for that.
Thank you Lesley. I’m glad that at least I didn’t give it away entirely. I had no idea that it was the day before Halloween. Could well have looked like a Halloween prank, I suppose, if you were used to such things.
I didn’t know the detailed history of the War of the Worlds scare, only that it happened. Fascinating. And your neighbours are very inventive for Halloween. Great pics. I still can’t get my head round trick or treat. In my childhood, in Scotland, we went out guising and we had to perform (sing, dance, recite) in order to get treats.
That Smithsonian article is brilliant, isn’t it? To think that they put the whole thing together in a WEEK! Howard Koch is the man I take my hat off to. That will send me back to the keyboard with a flea in my ear.
Great post, Sophie. Especially loved the War of the Worlds backstory. My childhood memory of this time of year is not of ghosts and spookies. I went to a church school called All Saints and we were walked to the church on November 1st for the All Saints Day service and then we had the rest of the day off. I wonder if they still do that?
I was fascinated by the War of the Worlds backstory too, LIz. Of course Orson Welles had fantastic intensity as an actor and that marvellous voice. But I was really impressed, too, that “Frank Readick, the actor cast as the reporter who witnesses the Martians’ arrival, scrounged up a recording of the Hindenburg disaster broadcast and listened to it over and over again, studying the way announcer Herbert Morrison’s voice swelled in alarm and abject horror. Readick replicated those emotions during the show with remarkable accuracy, crying out over the horrific shrieks of his fellow actors as his character and other unfortunate New Jerseyites got incinerated by the Martian heat-ray.” Gave me chills, just reading that in the Smithsonian article.
We got marched to church for St Katharine’s Day, patron saint of virgins, scholars and wheelwrights as well as, for some reason, the Haberdashers’ Company. I’d heard of All Saints in books and history but it wasn’t until I first went to France that I realised it was still a church festival.
Me too, re France. When I was a teaching assistant/student in Marseille, I was surprised to discover that the beginning of November (la Toussaint) was a two-day holiday. Mind you, there were lots of public holidays when schools like mine didn’t have to work. Great fun for us. And we still got paid, too 😉
Loved the Orson Welles War of the worlds story. I kept wondering who was the Wunderkind and did not guess. You kept that one really elusive. Brilliant.
We didn’t have trick or treat or even really celebrate Halloween in Africa as I was growing up. Guy Fawkes was the big one for us. Always a bonfire with a guy and fireworks. Pretty tame ones compared to what they do now (far too noisy for me) but we loved it. Especially holding sparklers.
I’ll give you the sparklers, Liz. Gorgeous things. I really hated both the guy – they always seemed malevolent – and burning them. Though I think that particular tradition has pretty much disappeared these days, except in a few places.
SO glad you enjoyed the Orson Welles story. The Smithsonian article is just brilliant. It sounds as if, given the time constraints and desperate necessity of salvaging a turkey, everyone probably did overlook the risk of the audience being misled. But I still think there was an element of prank from Welles, at least, in encouraging that actor to imitate Roosevelt.
Thank you for that, Sophie, a lovely post and I am making a note of even more books to read 🙂 Living for years in isolated areas, I haven’t had much experience of trick or treating, but we did spend one Halloween in a town house and I was prepared – pumpkin on the doorstep and a dish of sweets, but when it came to the trick, I got there first, and produced a bowl of unwashed, knobbly Jerusalem artichokes and told them that was their treat! Poor little souls did not know what to do (but the sweeties that followed made up for it). I think it’s a lovely idea for the younger children, properly supervised, and this year, most definitely needed!