Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

If Halloween had a patron saint, it would surely be Edgar Allan Poe. But for Americans this is a time for fun, not horror, as they prepare to spend $5bn on pumpkins, masks, costumes and a mountain of confectionery
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The Independent Online

I wonder what Edgar Allan Poe would have made of Halloween. On Wednesday evening, Americans celebrate their annual feast of all things weird and ghoulish. In reality, however, the jollities started this weekend – and for me a while before that. Let others put out the pumpkins. I went to see a work by the master of horror himself.

If Halloween had a patron saint, it would be Poe. Legend has it that the six-year-old Edgar was once seized with terror as he passed a graveyard, convinced that "the spirits of the undead" would run after him. Having seen The Fall of the House of Usher last weekend, I'm inclined to believe that the legend is true.

The story is creepy enough by any standards. But the stage production, by a company called the Synetic Theater, was an electrifying mix of dance, music and narrative drama. It told Poe's Gothic tale of the last scions of a doomed family sinking into a morass of incest, madness and death with ferocious intensity – never more so than in the dreadful climax, of the sister Madeline being buried alive and then rising from the undead to confront her brother, who in turn dies of terror at the apparition.

Rightly, the epicentre of local Halloween festivities is in Baltimore, with events at the house where Poe lived for several years and at Westminster Cemetery a few blocks away, where he is buried. The lavishly ghoulish displays in front gardens around my neighbourhood don't achieve what the Synetic's players so magnificently did: the suspension, however temporary, of disbelief.

Unlike Poe, the modern Halloween is fun. Given the many unpleasantnesses in the world there's nothing wrong with that. And if some people make big bucks, there's nothing wrong with that either.

You have to admire the creativity of the household artists of Halloween. Even with a young child in the house, we never ventured beyond the odd pumpkin on the front doorsteps. But don't underestimate the pumpkin– this year a man from Rhode Island smashed the world record by cultivating one weighing 1,689lbs, more than three-quarters of a ton.

It's big business, but contrary to urban rumour, Halloween is not the second biggest spending holiday in the US. Although turnover has almost doubled in five years, to $5bn(£2.5bn) annually, Halloween still ranks well behind Mother's and Father's Day. It is also far outstripped by Valentine's Day ($10bn), not to mention Christmas, when Americans will spend this year a projected $457bn (more than the entire gross national product of Turkey).

Once upon a time, Halloween was exclusively for kids, and its core ritual still revolves around the groups of young children who go up and down the streets dressed up in costume, knocking on doors and receiving inordinate amounts of sweets and chocolate. In Britain, trick-or-treating has been grafted on to the "Penny for the Guy" routine of Bonfire Night five days later, and has acquired a slightly menacing tone. It was sometimes a choice, I used to feel, between a substantial donation or a brick through the window.

Crime can spoil the fun. Take last week's warning by police in Cocoa, Florida, that even on Halloween night residents in masks risk instant arrest, after a spate of armed robberies by masked men. By and large, though, Halloween is good-natured fun.

Researchers who study these things claim that more adults will go to costumed Halloween parties in 2007 than watch the programme Monday Night Football, roughly America's equivalent of Match of the Day. If you really want to scare people, you can go as George W Bush (or better still Darth Vader himself, Dick Cheney). But the most popular outfits will be the hardy perennials: pirates, vampires, witches, goblins and the like. Halloween is now America's third largest party night, topped by New Year's Eve and Super Bowl Sunday. More than 31 million cards will be sent, while the average adult who gets into the swing of things will spend almost $60 on Halloween paraphernalia. Some stores have run special Halloween sections since August. Predictably it is a bonanza for the confectionery industry, which this year will reap an expected $2.2bn of sales from 31 October.

For the best part of a month now, ordinary gardens near where we live have taken on a chilly, spectral air – especially incongruous this year with day temperatures in the 80s. You find plastic skeletons hanging from trees, porches festooned with strings of miniature plastic skulls, and imitation tombstones of grey plastic in the front flowerbeds.

One homeowner must have blown hundreds of dollars turning his garden into a veritable Poe-land. Ghostly figures are to be seen in trees swathed in wondrous confections of cobwebs. At night, the whole macabre tableau comes "alive", so to speak, with chains of fairy lights in seasonal orange and black. Capping everything is a black spider with a 4ft legspan, suspended over the entrance porch.

There's every sign that the festivities will get more fun still. Thus far, Halloween has been mercifully free of sex, but for how much longer? In an alarming sign of the times, the 24th annual International Halloween and Costume Party Show will move next year from stolid old Chicago to the Sands Expo Center in raunchy Las Vegas. There, visitors will be able to attend such gatherings as a "Fantasy Fashion Show" and a "Sexy Costume Fashion Show".

And it gets worse. Excluding pets from the fun constitutes cruelty to animals – so a couple of the big US pet firms have launched costume lines for dogs and cats. One of them, PetSmart, is even running its own costume party for its canine and feline customers entitled, ouch, Howl-O-Ween. Pets in 7.4m households, it is forecast, will be dressed up in special Halloween attire in 2007 – proof, if any were needed, that in America no statistic is too minor to be measured, if money is involved.

As for Edgar Allan Poe, he must want to burst forth from his tomb – just like Madeline in The Fall of the House of Usher.