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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.