Carola Long: Halloween – the festival of our times

It's now a typically modern, pick-and mix, do-it-yourself sort of celebration

Halloween makes plenty of people's blood boil. And that's not part of their scary costume, it really does make them angry. These party-poopers see the festival as an historically inauthentic excuse for mild extortion, childish behaviour, tasteless humour and yet more consumption. Well of course it is, but those are just a few of the reasons why it's the most socially relevant festival of the year – and the most fun by a mile.

Halloween now is a typically modern, pick-and-mix, do-it- yourself sort of festival. Although the Church designated the next day, November 1, as All Saints' Day, Halloween is effectively secular, with its origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain. That means it's a unifying occasion that can be enjoyed by people of all faiths or no faith whatsoever.

While there are traditional precedents for today's spooky motifs, Halloween allows us to select our own iconography. Two years ago my local high street was overrun with Amy Winehouses and last year Sarah Palin was a popular choice. Expect a rash of Nick Griffin lookalikes on Saturday and some entirely tasteless Thriller-era Michael Jacksons.

At Sainsbury's, sales of adult Halloween costumes have risen by over 100 per cent and the fancy dress company Angels and Berman reported that sales were up 15 per cent on last year. The fact that Halloween, and particularly Halloween fancy dress, has become so popular with adults suggests a need for escapism, but not of the saccharine variety.

This is a more brooding retreat into a fantasy world which reflects the fact that modern life can be dark and dangerous. Adults have gone from reading jolly Quidditch sticks-style books such as Harry Potter to the more metaphorically charged menace of the crime novel Twilight and the TV programme True Blood.

Another key reason why Halloween is the most zeitgesty of all celebrations is the fact that there is no gap between traditional fantasy and modern reality. The idealised image of a Victorian-style Christmas with freshly fallen snow and a flurry of cards has fallen victim to global warming, festive Facebook entries and the postal strike. Not so Halloween.

Frankly the prospect of authentically sacrificing a goat on a bonfire, while dressed up in animal skins as the Celts did, doesn't come close to the carnivalesque thrill of guzzling a Dracula's Kiss cocktail (for adults), demanding tantrum-inducing sweets from a grumpy neighbour (well-behaved children) or egging someone's 4x4 (not so well-behaved children/environmentalists).

Trick or treating is essentially extortion, but it can be a childhood highlight, not just because of the free E-number binge and the socially sanctioned mischief, but also the neighbourly social ritual. Of course there are people who take advantage of the practice as an excuse for serious, unacceptable vandalism and intimidation but we should recognise that as a reflection of society, and not a fault of the festival. Should we ban Easter eggs because of the obesity crisis?

Most relevant of all, given our obsession with trends, is the fact that fashion has gone to the dark side. Designers and the high street are revelling in Gothic black or dark purple lipstick, cobweb knits and witchy dresses. This season spooky is cool in a way that the Easter bunny and Father Christmas can only dream of.