Rhoda Koenig: A night of greed, extortion and spiteful violence

Hallowe'en is big business, and trick-or-treating often seems an excuse for vandalism
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The Independent Online

Mother of mercies, what have you done to Hallowe'en? In my youth (sometime in the Pleistocene era) a time for children to have innocent, naughty fun, it is now an occasion for greed, extortion and spiteful violence.

My image of Hallowe'en gone by is of myself back in America, with a cone made of black paper on my head and carrying a broom, coming triumphantly home with a sack of "candy corn", a sweet available only at this time of year. (These were triangular morsels striped in yellow, orange, and black. They tasted foul, but that wasn't the point.)

My contemporary image of the holiday derives from a news story of a couple of years ago: a youth, having been refused treats, picking up the householder's kitten and smashing its head in.

England, I know, blames America for this anarchic holiday, but to that I say: blame the Irish. It seems that the pagan Celts marked this night, which they considered the last of summer, with bonfires and sacrifices, some human. When Christianity came in, and the new rulers, wanting to ease the transition, blended the old holidays with new ones, the Druids' night to howl became the eve of All Hallows' Day. "Soul cakes," the origin of treats, were begged in exchange for prayers to speed the giver into heaven once he entered limbo.

When, in the late 1840s, the Irish, in the wake of famine (for that, we can blame the English) went to America, they brought the custom along. It lost its sacred associations, and became a time for children, as can be seen in the endearing Judy Garland film Meet Me in St Louis, set in 1892. Told by the other children that she is too young to go trick-or-treating, little sister Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) is determined to prove herself "the bravest of them all".

She knocks on the door of the meanest man in the neighbourhood, and, when he refuses her a treat, socks him in the eye with a paper bag filled with flour. Rushing back to her awestruck playmates, she announces, wide-eyed: "I killed him!"

Other things we used to do for fun in those ancient days was tell ghost stories or blindfold friends and give them scary things to hold; a rubber glove filled with water was announced as a corpse's hand, and a slice of liver as - well, I don't remember, but it was some time before Portnoy.

I think it was in the 1970s that the Hallowe'en apples started to go rotten. The custom of bobbing, or ducking for them in a tub of water, hands behind one's back, was a popular rural pastime in Britain long before the rest of the Hallowe'en paraphernalia crossed the ocean. It was thought that those who failed to grab one in their teeth, after three attempts, was doomed to a life of poverty, and in a time when manual dexterity was more important than it is now, that was probably as good an indicator as any. The unsuccessful, indeed, sometimes in later years looked back to this fortune-telling game. "Ducking for apples," said Dorothy Parker, "there, but for a letter, is the story of my life."

In the decade of the Seventies John Carpenter made the immensely popular film Hallowe'en, in which a mask hid the identity of a serial slasher; it spawned eight sequels. The Seventies also saw the birth of the Greenwich Village Hallowe'en parade. To anyone who had strolled through the Village on an ordinary Saturday night, Hallowe'en might have seemed largely superfluous, but the event grew and grew, with each year upping the ante on exhibitionism.

Hallowe'en's recent association with sexual display and lewd political protest (in recent years, leotards decorated with merkins have become popular for Bush-baiting) have probably strengthened the belief of Christian America that the holiday is the devil's work. Wonderful World Tomorrow, a radio programme for the righteous, has advised its listeners: "If you want to show God you are willing to follow Him, just say no to Hallowe'en."

God's distaste for Mammon, however, would be enough to turn him off the modern celebrations. Not so many decades ago, a Hallowe'en costume was a worn-out sheet with two holes cut in it. Parental policing of sweet consumption, as well as the cost of confectionery made Hallowe'en candy a treat indeed. Now, however, Hallowe'en - its games, sweet, and disguises - is big business, and the trick-or-treating often seems an excuse for vandalism.

The traditional American revenge on Hallowe'en skinflints was to soap the windows of the stingy or scribble on their doors with chalk. These pranks are now, of course, too tame to excite our children, who need no excuse to cover their neighbours' walls with heathen runes in metallic paint, and respond to sweet-denial with arson.

It's not surprising that some parents, fearing the wrath of the tricked, now shepherd their children from door to door, assuring residents that their little gremlins are engaged in strictly responsible - ie, trickless - trick-or-treating.

This sounds about as much fun as snogging through Hallowe'en masks, but you can hardly blame them. Me, I'm off to spend a more civilised Hallowe'en in Italy, where they celebrate not on the eve, but on the feast day of All Saints itself. As I crunch on some ossua di morte (almond paste made into the shape of knuckle bones) there tomorrow, I shall reflect that, in today's wicked world, our own autumn eve of the dead has probably come to the end of its useful life.