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Tram Diary: Halloween

My mother must have been blissfully unaware of how young minds cleave to the forbidden when she banned Halloween from my childhood home on the basis that it was, in her memorable words, “the Devil’s Day.” This, as a practising Christian, she would follow-up with similarly enticing epithets describing the event as “Devil worship” and declarations that “I won’t have any witchcraft under this roof!” Witchcraft! All I ever wanted to do was carve a pumpkin and watch a horror film, but no, for such sacrilege would surely call forth Lucifer himself to present his grotesque visage in our West-Midlands two-bedroom bungalow. It could hardly have been surprising that I, like so many of my peers, should want to partake since we’d been weaned on the kind teen-orientated US TV that depicted the festival as pure ghoulish fun. I mean, who wouldn’t want to roam the streets dressed as a favourite fictional character demanding sweets from their neighbours, perhaps even tossing a few eggs at the teacher’s house?

Back in the late 80s and early 90s American-style Halloween was yet to establish itself in the UK. We all knew a few kids who were allowed to go trick-or-treating, their parents tragically oblivious to the risk of inadvertent Satanism, but the numbers were as limited as the houses willing to oblige in seasonal panhandling. The way I heard it from the adults in my immediate circle was that only bad kids from troubled homes were permitted to stalk the dark streets demanding candy, so we, the “good” kids, were better off out of it.

Discussing this with a friend who takes his young family out trick-or-treating explained that the rule is that you should only go to houses that have some kind of Halloween display, as this indicates a willingness to participate on their part. He told me about a local woman who dresses up in full witch’s garb who likes to hide in the bushes by her house and jump-scare people as they approach. “I think she’s single,” he said by way of an explanation.

“Why is that an important detail?” I asked, genuinely bemused by the idea that he seemed to be reaching for a spinster-witch analogy.

“Well, you know, time on her hands, probably a bit mad and lonely, no kids of her own – you know, witchy. Certainly scared the shit out of me when she jumped out last year.”

Good to know that we’re never so evolved as a species that we can’t casually resuscitate reductive seventeenth century stereotypes when it suits us, but there you have it. Was it the jump alone that scared him I wondered, or the combination of a jump with a witch’s rebellious approach to gendered behavioural norms? At any rate I’m looking forward to his report on this year’s outing now convinced that he sees this jump-scare tactic as a form of flirting owing to his insistence that she makes a point of going after the young dads. The idea that she’s just be a nice lady about whom he knows nothing other than she enjoys dressing up for Halloween and getting into the spirit of things doesn’t seem to have occurred. Witches be crazy I guess.

Mad single childless witches aside he agreed that it’s all harmless fun and the witch’s house is a popular stop amongst the children who flee with playful squeals of delight as she erupts from her hiding place. Chatting to a colleague about trick-or-treating protocol I was told how he belongs to a group of families from his local area who meet up each year, stick to a prescribed route and conclude the evening’s entertainment with a party at one of their homes, all of which sounds rather lovely. I was thinking about this and how I was missing out while getting off the tram this morning. Having picked up a coffee I was confronted by a small group of young people dressed in the tatters of fancy dress drunkenly weaving their way home from a party. One of the women blocked the path directly ahead of me and demanded a sip of my coffee. Still half asleep and confused by this sudden confrontation it was all I could do to mutter a pathetic “no thank you” and scuttle away as she bellowed “what do you mean NO THANK YOU!” at my back, her friends pulling her away in the direction of the 24 hour Tesco Metro.

It might be that I’m yet to experience the Halloween I’ve always imagined for myself, most likely because it doesn’t exist, nor can it. What do you call nostalgia for something that you’ve never experienced? Regret? That seems a little heavy-handed but gets close to it. A journalist in The Guardian was reflecting last week about how we, as a nation now perpetually reeling from a multitude of crises and plunging headfirst into an ever deepening state of precarity should embrace the semi-serious silliness of Halloween. My initial thought was how familiar this sounded, what with the journalist being the same age as me and most likely having grown up in the same pre-Halloween doldrums. I suppose it’s easy to think that all of the joy is slowly leaking out of the world and for that reason alone a little whimsy is probably a good thing and worthy of admiration.

A few years ago, back when we were still living in Coventry, a gaggle of small children and their adult chaperones appeared at our door asking for Halloween sweets. I’d completely spaced on the date and for once didn’t have an embarrassingly commodious stash of chocolatey delights tucked away. Desperate to reward the nippers for their good manners I disappeared into the house in search of appropriate alternative “treats” with which one might placate a docile mob of nuggets. We had nothing of course, which I knew even as I over-promised, somehow forgetting that we had not long moved into the house. After a few minutes’ anxious rummaging I retuned with a vase full of miscellaneous feathers instructing the children to choose whichever one they liked.

One little ghost selected a long ostrich feather with its elaborate eye, another took a delicate pheasant quill. One by one they walked up and chose their feather until we came to the last little boy, a pirate, who had no choice but to accept what remained: a grubby looking, but to my mind entirely costume appropriate seagull feather. As they all stood there in the driveway holding their feathers, a look of shared bewilderment on their painted faces, the little boy began to cry. Beginning as a wounded simper this quickly collapsed into a full-bodied howl, me a torrent of apologies and now inexplicably offering a lucky dip in the oubliette-like kitchen drawers as compensation. Perhaps sensing my panic the parents thanked me for my misguided efforts and steered the children away from the now blacklisted crazy house and onwards to more fruitful abodes.

The one welcome but I guess ironic twist is that since then we’ve always ensured that we have a box of sweets on hand for Halloween. But in all the years since the Night of the Ill-Advised Feather we have not been visited again, leaving us to enjoy a family-sized tub of Cadbury Heroes all to our gluttonous selves, which is about as close to my ideal Halloween as I’m probably going to get.

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