Our Man In New York: Of ghosts and ghoulies and advertising from hell

To stand out in the crowd nowadays, it always helps to generate a little controversy. Known as negative advertising, it's all about getting up the nose of sufficient numbers of people to generate indignant newspaper headlines without going too far and alienating everyone.

Madonna got it right by enraging the Vatican with a mock crucifixion in her sold-out Confessions Tour this year but might have caused a tad too much damage with her African baby debacle. Mel Gibson ensured maximum exposure for his film The Passion of the Christ by stirring up the Jewish lobby but his recent drunken anti-Semitic rant has become a press relations nightmare he may never escape.

Now it is the turn of the US distributors of the British film Death of a President, which has just opened here to mostly atrocious reviews. But for a kerfuffle created by the refusal of some cinema chains to screen it - claiming that a fictional assassination of George Bush crosses the taste barrier - and of Fox, CNN and other networks to air trailers for it, most of America wouldn't even know it was playing.

A special prize for ingenuity should be given to the Maritime Hotel in the claustrophobically trendy Meatpacking District of Manhattan which I assume was responsible for planting a story in the gossip pages of the New York Post at the weekend claiming that one of its floors is haunted.

The Maritime was built on the site of a demolished Catholic refuge for troubled youths. It seems that guests have been reporting seeing the spirits of young children playing in the corridors on the 10th floor. One woman recently ran screaming to the lobby wet from a shower and wrapped in a bath towel after a ghoulish encounter. Understandably, she checked out and found alternative lodgings.

While we are assured that these juvenile phantoms are entirely well-behaved and non-threatening, the story has a darker side. Almost 20 years ago the Manhattan District Attorney opened an investigation into claims that the pastor who used to run the refuge was in the habit of intoxicating his wards with alcohol before attempting to abuse them. Perhaps that explains the restlessness of the spirits still today.

You might be asking what has possessed the Maritime's management - aside from the children themselves - to steer such a story into the press, if indeed that is what they did. What kind of publicity is this for a hostelry, which, after all, is by no means a dump? Its balcony bar, the largest outside party space of any hotel in the city, is a point of tipsy pilgrimage on summer nights for any Manhattanite with pretensions of cool. Actually, it is rather good publicity if only because of the season, Halloween.

If you don't live here or have never visited at the end of October, you may not be entirely aware of the seriousness with which Americans take this holiday of tricks, treats and bumps in the night. Millions of small children will have spent the weekend assembling their Superman and Marie Antoinette costumes (well, maybe not the latter) ahead of tomorrow's rituals of gathering sweets from neighbours and threatening them with pranks. Billions of little pumpkin lights are now dangling from front porches from one side of the land to the other.

It is by no means a holiday just for the little ones. New York, perhaps more than any other city, goes a bit bonkers over Halloween. The parade tomorrow, which will pass just a couple of blocks from the Maritime, draws crowds even bigger than those jammed into Times Square on New Year's Eve. It's about commerce too, of course. This year, even the lofty Bergdorf Goodman department store on Fifth Avenue has stooped to filling its windows with witches and grim reapers. Meanwhile, every other cable channel is in the midst of a multi-day, horror-movie marathon.

The horror for many of us is not about gore and blood but about fake gore and blood. Yes, once more I have been the receiver of Halloween party invitations and once more plunged into costume panic. This meant repairing this morning with my friend Veronika to the Halloween Adventure shop on 4th Avenue to purchase an off-the-peg disguise. Regrettably, half the adult population of the city seemed to have had the same idea and after waiting 10 minutes just to get in the door, we gave up.

I have hit upon a solution that merely required a cheap purchase from my local charity shop and a quick raid of my daughter's toy cupboard. While it is more or less inoffensive to all religious and ethnic groups, I do admit that the wearing of it - especially on the subway to my friend's apartment - will induce deep humiliation and discomfort. Thus, while I could reveal the nature of it to you here, I choose to demur lest I stand accused of trying to promote myself though negative advertising.