In early October 1974, my father held very strong objections to observing Halloween. I can’t remember what he said when I asked if I might have a Halloween party, but it was something about US cultural imperialism. By late October 1974, I’d worn him down to the point that he’d agreed to dress in the drag of a witch and speak in a high voice to six-year-old girls for some hours. Still, he maintained for years that Australian children should not succumb to this commercial US enchantment.
He was cranky enough about the whole thing to prompt my earliest act of research. I asked the school librarian to help me find the Halloween entry in the World Book Encyclopedia, which suggested its origins to precede those of the Hallmark company. Being old enough to look up a fact for the sake of an argument, I was also too old to dress up as a ghost. But I did tell my father in any case, who said that he knew this, but that it was hardly the point.
The point of Halloween was largely forgotten by me until I remembered that kids from any place are inclined by nature to enjoy it. To have licence to demand sugar from an adult probably has cross-cultural appeal, which is not an argument I was able to make when I was five.
The kids in my suburb, itself quite cross-cultural, don’t need to make the argument. And there is no chance that I won’t observe the arguments as set forth by local parents in their letterbox circular. It arrived this week, as it has for several years, and warns all residents that adults are powerless to resist children powerless to resist the appeal of Halloween. If you would prefer to resist it, please do not place this sticky spider on your letterbox. It means that you are happy to be visited by the mischievous spirits of our postcode on October 31.
Any ritual of reversal is fun for kids, but one that starts in ridiculous costumes and ends in individually wrapped sweets has special appeal. Whether the market or the US encourages Halloween, news of briefly legitimised naughtiness can reach kids. It reached them first on my street about a decade ago when parents were moved to oversee a parade of ghouls and characters I presume to be from Harry Potter. It really hotted up in 2016 with, as I told Dad, actual opposition to US cultural imperialism. Three of these kids were dressed like the campaigning Donald Trump.
I checked on Facebook that night and saw many other photographs of our shorter Australians dressed as the future President. Perhaps they had been encouraged by liberal parents to choose this costume as one of utter horror, or, perhaps the kids found him very funny. I suspect some did. One young lady Trump came to my door and really went to town with an “I’m tremendous! I am great!” impersonation. This went on for some time until I confused her parents by beginning a conversation about Bernie Sanders.
I’m hoping this year for some Pauline Hansons, and I’m practising a bit of “it’s not OK to eat white chocolate” material to frighten supervising parents, as is my emerged Halloween tradition. Even when grown, the temptation to shock others does not disappear entirely.
I don’t expect sweet reward for this, of course, as I’m a grown up. The delight of simply having an annual context in which to be shockingly inappropriate is enough. The administrator of our local bulk-billing medical clinic enjoys Halloween similarly, although she’s a little more elaborate than me.
She’s started early this year, and she’s gone big. The entire wall behind reception is covered in a haunted house tromp l’oeil and even my psychologist’s office forms part of an all-clinic diorama. There were spider webs on the chair in which I sit each week for my PTSD therapy, which is shockingly inappropriate, and funny.
The supermarkets are full of individually wrapped sweets, cold-storage pumpkins and witches’ wimples and even the local servo is selling spooky drinks. But Halloween is not just a thing to market, or to borrow from the USA. It’s a moment in which kids and adults can delude themselves that the horror of life is under their control.