‘It’s become a real monster!’ How Britain fell for Halloween

‘It started with the Coffin of Doom,” says Jeremy Hayward, of the year he first decided to create an experience for children ringing his bell on Halloween. Just beyond his threshold was a coffin, with a dressed-up Hayward daring brave trick-or-treaters to open the lid. “And inside there were treats, but there was also a baby on a cross. No one complained.”

In fact, the Coffin of Doom was a success. “It was a bit gruesome,” says Hayward, “and slightly irreligious, I guess, but then that’s Halloween for you.” There were additions and improvements over the next few years – spooky music, lights, the front door rigged to open automatically – but it wasn’t enough for him. “You have to keep reinventing. It’s great for the little ones, but as soon as they’ve done it a couple times, it’s: ‘Ah, it’s the Coffin of Doom; there’s just a baby inside.’”

Hayward, 54, who lives in Nunhead, south London, progressed to the more elaborate Wall of Doom, which was so popular that it had kids queueing down the road. It had various holes into which participants stuck their hands; some contained treats, others tricks. Hayward wore a fake hand, so he could use his free hand to grab people’s fingers from the other side. For 2020, he developed an outdoor experience that included large spiders mounted on remote-control cars that chased children down the road. “I had a lot of appreciation that year,” he says. “A lot of parents saying: ‘Oh God, you saved Halloween.’”

When I first took my children out trick-or-treating in London – about 20 years ago – nobody was making that kind of effort. As an American, I was disappointed; there were a few pumpkins on doorsteps, but the lack of enthusiasm for the whole enterprise was palpable. Most people seemed to have no idea it was Halloween. I watched one man chase the children who rang his bell down the road with a stick. It was the wrong sort of scary.

Two decades later, Halloween is a very different holiday. In one poll, 68% of respondents said they would buy sweets for trick-or-treaters, up from 58% in 2021. Pumpkin sales have increased every year, even during the pandemic. Walking around my neighbourhood last year, I noticed more and more houses aspiring to Hayward’s level of engagement.

One of the bestselling innovations for this Halloween is an outdoor display consisting of a giant black spider – 1.2 metres (4ft) wide – hanging from a 6 metre web that hooks on to your guttering. Stretchable cobwebs – sufficient to cover 20 sq m – can be had for as little as £5.99, to accompany rolls of crime scene tape and Keep Out signs. “Make your house an abandoned and creepy place,” reads one Amazon blurb. Ironically, it is now customary to announce your participation in the ritual of trick-or-treating by disguising your home as a condemned property.

Still, a significant proportion of the population refuses to join in, dismissing Halloween as a crass American import while simultaneously claiming it as an ancient British custom, one they seem to feel is more honoured in the breach than the observance. Where does the UK’s love/hate relationship stand in 2022?

When Guardian readers were asked how they intend to celebrate Halloween this year, their responses ran the gamut. Like Hayward, some people have elaborate plans for scaring trick-or-treaters. “This year I’ve bought an antique dentist’s chair off eBay,” says one, “along with a few well-chosen rusty tools.”

Many horror fans seem to consider Halloween their personal holiday – a time to indulge ghoulish tastes and a dark sense of humour – and its increasing popularity is, for some, a disappointment. “I do have mixed emotions about it being so mainstream now,” writes Hannah Turner, 40, from Brighton. “It used to be a lot more of a subculture.”

Anecdotally, how you feel about Halloween seems to depend on how old you are, and where you grew up. Some of our readers from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland have a pretty uncomplicated relationship with Halloween. “We decorate the house in late September, go pumpkin picking in October, dress up in costumes as a family group, give treats to trick-or-treaters on the day itself and have a special spooky meal,” says Emily Lawler, 38, from Glasgow.

“I’m Irish, so Halloween is bigger than Christmas!” writes Anna, 39, who has plans to go to a club night in east Belfast, dressed as the builder from the Village People.

But some English people find the idea of trick-or-treating threatening: more than one respondent used the phrase “with menaces”. Others have seized on the open-ended nature of Halloween to create alternative, community-based events.

In 2016, Northfields allotments in Ealing, west London, were threatened by development, and, in a bid to raise awareness, plot-holders inaugurated a pumpkin trail for Halloween. “Everyone sort of spookified their plots and invited the local community to have a look around,” says committee member Richard Ashcroft, 44. “And it’s grown from there, really. It’s become a real monster – excuse the pun.”

Not every plot-holder participates, but the ones who do are competitive. “Me and a mate have been constructing our rig for at least a month,” says Ashcroft. “It’s going to be a series of bicycle wheels, with very strong cabling to attach ghosts that will float around and over the path.”

Last year, the pumpkin trail was so popular that 8,000 people turned up. This year, it’s a ticketed event, with restricted numbers. “I mean, it’s £1, plus a 25p booking fee,” says Ashcroft. “But the ticketing allows us to manage the flow.” The original reason for the event has evaporated – development of the site has been ruled out – but the pumpkin trail is too popular to give up. “It’s a labour of love now.”

A significant proportion of respondents plan to stick to the tradition of ignoring Halloween altogether. “As every year – put out all the lights and retreat to the back of the house,” says retiree Martin Ross from Devon. “Front door never answered to Halloween callers. Really dislike this tacky US-style commercialisation of what used to be called All Souls’ Night.”

Actually, All Souls’ Night is the evening of 1 November; 31 October is the day before All Saints’ Day – All Hallows Eve, hence Halloween. But the idea of the occasion as a retail opportunity has become increasingly prevalent. In 2001, Halloween consumer spending in the UK was about £12m. This year it’s estimated to reach £687m.

Jim Hawker, co-founder of the marketing agency Threepipe Reply, describes Halloween as “a rising consumer trend”. In addition to sweets and pumpkins, people now also buy lights, smoke machines, Halloween tree decorations and costumes for dogs. Once largely a kids’ thing, Halloween is increasingly celebrated by young adults. “The thing to think about this year is, obviously, it’s happening on a Monday night,” says Hawker, “which gives you the whole weekend from a partying perspective, which is probably quite good for the millennial audience.”

A report that Hawker’s firm produced in October 2021 contains some compelling stats. Halloween is now the third biggest annual shopping event for supermarkets, after Christmas and Easter. The percentage of people who celebrate it is higher in the north (56%) than in the south (45%). Four in 10 Halloween costumes are worn just once before being binned, generating an estimated 2,000 tonnes of plastic waste.

It is difficult to make solid spending predictions for this year in the face of a cost of living crisis. “People are going to be more concerned about saving for Christmas than perhaps spending money on Halloween,” says Hawker. “I think there’s a little bit of nervousness in retail anyway, in terms of retailers not wanting to take the risk of having lots of stock they can’t shift.” Few things are as worthless as a pumpkin on 1 November.

Still, as a trend Halloween remains buoyant. Spending continued to rise through the pandemic. Certain brands have managed to identify themselves with the day: Fanta, for example, mounts an annual effort combining special Halloween branding and a social media campaign. Others have developed promotional ranges – toffee flavours, autumnal packaging – designed to span the period between Halloween and bonfire night.

Where did Halloween as a retail extravaganza spring from? Is it just an American export? “I think there’s a little bit of a globalisation aspect to it,” says Hawker. “But if you know history, apparently Halloween started in Scotland.”

It’s a well-regarded assumption that modern Halloween traditions are derived from rituals associated with the Celtic festival of Samhain – marking the end of harvest and the start of winter – but it’s just as possible the influence was the other way round. What we do know is that at some point in the ninth century, a Christian holiday commemorating saints and martyrs was shifted from May to the end of October, a time when pagan rituals were also conducted, including the lighting of bonfires and guising (going door to door, in disguise).

Divination was also part of the tradition: people burned nuts and poured molten lead into cold water to predict the future. It was a time of year when the barrier between the living and the dead was said to thin. Sometimes, according to folklore, ghosts appeared from the other side. Sometimes, they took people back with them.

Over time, in England at least, certain traditions became more strongly associated with Guy Fawkes and the fifth of November, and the importance of Halloween diminished. British newspaper references to Allhallowtide traditions in the 19th century are largely, if not exclusively, concerned with practices in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. In 1842, the Bristol Times and Mirror noted that the urge to keep up “old customs” in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, drove up the price of geese and apples as the 31st neared.

It is said that Scottish and Irish immigrants brought their traditions to the US and Canada, where they evolved into their present, highly exportable form. When I was a child growing up in Connecticut, Halloween was a big deal. The suburban town I lived in was perfectly suited to trick-or-treating – you could hit a lot of houses without having to walk too far – and local participation was close to 100%.

Kids dressed as ghosts, witches, superheroes or Snow White. There were horror-based costumes – Frankensteins, Draculas, Egyptian mummies, etc – but these were the days before the “lifesize severed head” became an acceptable holiday decoration. From a young age – eight or nine – we went out unsupervised, and returned with pillowcases full of sweets after a couple of hours. For all I knew, it was a tradition stretching back centuries.

In fact, the phrase “trick or treat” did not appear in print anywhere until the 1920s, and the practice, though it has its roots in old-world door-knocking customs such as guising, wasn’t widespread in America until after the second world war. It has even been suggested that the ritual emerged as a civic fix, imposed to turn Halloween – traditionally a time for pranks and minor criminal damage – into something more law-abiding. In the Halloween scenes in the film Meet Me in St Louis – made in 1944 but set in 1903 – the children dress up, terrorise householders and run away. No sweets change hands.

When I was a child, Mischief Night (which has 18th-century British roots and is still marked in the north of England on the night before Bonfire Night) was unofficially celebrated on the night before Halloween. We spent that evening soaping windows, draping toilet rolls over power lines and throwing eggs at passing cars. A lot of the vandalism was still evident the next night, which lent a little menace to the atmosphere.

But on Halloween, the menace – or at least the perception of it – flowed in the other direction. Rumours circulated about evil householders putting razor blades inside toffee apples, or poisoning candy by injection. Part of the ritual was combing through your sweets at the end of the night, looking for evidence of tampering. Somehow, the balance between fun and fear that characterises Halloween always manages to restore itself.

Whatever your feelings about it, Halloween in its present form appears to be here to stay. To a great extent, one’s attitude to it is formed by childhood experiences, and the UK trick-or-treaters of 20 years ago are now old enough to have children of their own.

But some of the people who make the biggest deal of it have no history of celebrating. Ashcroft grew up in Lancashire. “I lived in the middle of nowhere, so we didn’t really have much going on,” he says. In response, his mother and aunt made up their own Halloween ritual, placing seasonal decorations – pumpkins and plastic bats – in the oven. “We’d go off dunking apples or something like that, and then come back to the oven. And that had magically turned into all sorts of cakes and treats and stuff,” he says. “I still believe to this day that it was magic.”

Hayward comes from Devon, with almost no Halloween rituals to speak of. “I remember one year we did mobile apple-bobbing,” he says, “bringing Halloween to people’s houses. But we didn’t have trick or treat. That wasn’t the culture at all.”

For 2021, Hayward built a fake door in front of his own front door. This year the same theme will feature minor improvements, but with his children grown he requires volunteers to help run the evening. Halloween equipment now takes up a third of his loft, and his partner is nowhere near as keen on the holiday as he is.

“I don’t know how it ends,” he says. “My worry is if I didn’t do it, I’d just get egged.”

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