While not quite on the level of missing Christmas, being away on Hallowe'en is a serious misdemeanour if you live in the United States and have small children. This is arguably the holiday in the year they enjoy the most, although there will be no presents to unwrap or stockings on the bed.
When the sun goes down on 31 October, all of picket-fenced America surrenders itself to the trick-or-treat terrorism of over-stimulated tinies (and not-so-tinies). Friends allege that if you are not ready for the onslaught and armed with a bowl of sweeties, you risk having the house pelted with eggs.
Believe it or not, the consumption of candy is secondary to the thrill of dressing up. It is a costume parade that lasts for several days. The build-up to the evening spans at least a week in the school classrooms and much longer in the card and gift shops, and beckons the participation not just of children but plenty of grown-ups too.
It helps if what you wear has a ghoulish theme, although for most children that is not de rigueur. In the past few days in the streets of our town I have spotted fairies, pirates, scarecrows and one small baby metamorphosed from head to toe into a toddling pumpkin. The Hallowe'en procession at my five-year-old son's school is this morning, and he will be going as a gaudily wrapped birthday parcel.
For those among the adult population who opt to pitch in, the satanic spirit of the holiday is usually taken much more seriously. Where in a few weeks time there will be reindeers in flight and Santa Clauses on front porches and lawns in our neighbourhood, there is now a gruesome collection of ghosts, gallows and carefully crafted crones on broomsticks.
Then there are the haunted houses. In increasing numbers in recent years, groups of people, often from the churches, have been getting together at Hallowe'en to stage a ghostly experience in one of their homes, or a hall for those with the courage - and a few dollars - to visit after dark. I would like to nominate two of this year's harvest for special Independent "Haunted House" prizes. One for the most convincing, imaginative and humorous presentation, the other for the sickest.
The nomination in the first category goes to the youth minister at the First Church of Christ in Greenwich and his band of 30-odd ghosts, goblins and scare-experts. For two nights last weekend they occupied the church's empty, 100-year-old rectory on the main street and turned it into a Hallowe'en theatre event. Worthy of the Psycho house, it is, aptly, set in large grounds planted with twisted yews and hemlocks.
My $5 dispensed, I was invited to await the butler at the bottom of the steps to the front door. Stone-faced and dressed impeccably in black tie, he emerged when, fortunately, three other customers had joined me. "General and Lady Putnam will see you now," he announced, showing us through the door into a hallway made smoky with dry ice and barely illuminated by red bulbs on a giant candelabra.
For 10 minutes we were guided by assorted gurgling characters up and down flights of stairs into the attic, the basement and through bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens. At every turn another tableau presented itself: a hellish dinner party with a live severed head on a platter, a chef preparing maggots and "Domino Brain Pizza" - to go. Hands appeared from under doors to grasp at our ankles and voices screamed for help. A waiter leaped from a parlour to offer a plate of eyeballs, severed ears and, especially tempting, a "thumb-a-la-Ritz" - a severed digit on a cheese cracker.
The sicko prize is awarded to a Pentecostal church in Arvada, Colorado, that used its mansion to ponder the "waste" of homosexuality, abortion and teen depression. This I did not visit, but it attracted sufficient attention to find itself featured on the evening news and many newspapers. The punters were shown a gay man in a coffin dying of Aids, a woman lying in a bath after an abortion, a bloody towel around her middle and a table alongside with a plate of dead animal parts; and a teenage boy with a gun to his head, preparing for suicide.
Paul Valiquette, the Arvada pastor, thought he was doing society a service. "The message is about decisions people make and the consequences." He said of the gay man, played by one of his congregation: "This is the terrible physical devastation brought on by his decision to lead that kind of lifestyle." Hallowe'en is a holiday when suburban America shows off its most generous,community-spirited side. A pity Arvada had to come along and stain it.