For a good few weeks now, supermarkets have allocated a considerable amount of aisle space to the promotion of Halloween related goods. Walking down the designated aisles in some supermarkets is a scarier journey than a ride on the Ghost Train at the Town Moor – and it’s free.
All of this razamattaz 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 it a bagey or snanny, but never a swede). This only started about October 28th, and that was about as far as things went.
We set about carving our lanterns after school on the 31st. When I was very young, my elder brother hollowed mine out for me (we both nibbled on the scrapings), but I soon became quite adept at making my own. With the swede a hollow shell, I set about carving my lantern. The procedure is as clear in my mind as that of an old army veteran who can still assemble a rifle in seconds:
- Scrape out a small hollow in the base to hold the candle
- Carve the face
- Make holes in the ‘temples’ to accommodate the string
- Make a chimney hole in the centre of the lid
- Make small holes either side of the chimney to accommodate the string
- Thread the string through the holes on both parts
- Light a candle and drizzle molten wax into the hollow you made
- Press the candle into the molten wax and let it harden
- Light the candle and off you go
On the night, we would gather with our lanterns beneath the dim glow of the 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. After this we would take our lanterns around the streets, perhaps encountering other groups of Halloweeners on the way. Trick or Treat was still some way in the future and, while we were happy to shake down householders for cash via Penny for the Guy and carol singing, Halloween was a strictly non-commercial event.
So while there was no financial gain to be had at Halloween, I did enoy 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 carbolic soap and Meppo brass polish as well-remembered whiffs from my formative years.
Not long after I outgrew Halloween, 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 enjoyed it (I hasten to add that I have never actually been Trick or Treating).
I still have in a box upstairs 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 at my mother’s house, 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 my grandma, who was eighty at the time, got into the spirit of things by wearing a black bin liner over her cardy. 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. The food would be followed by the kids embarking 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 and axes. This is all a bit gory to me; I prefer ghostly over grisly, The Sixth Sense over Saw.
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 told us that earlier, before it got dark, she had seen a strange man go into the little house. Once inside, she said, he had stood at the window, staring across the open ground at our street, right where we were standing.
“I wonder if he’s still watching us,” she said. As we all looked into the darkness towards the building, unable to see anything, a delightful spasm of terror ran down my little spine.
Whatever you do this Halloween, stay safe and have fun.