Many parents will be experiencing true, visceral Halloween horror today on hearing news that Britain is on the brink of a pumpkin shortage. Heavy rain during August is blamed for the dearth – although I suspect remaining stock has been depleted by a different natural force, namely hyper-organised modern middle-class mummies who pre-ordered the entire Waitrose stock by 1 October to add super-mum seasonal sparkle to their Instagram accounts.
“Pumpkin carving with the kiddies #tradition” is the sort of caption, accompanying snaps of intricately carved pumpkins, posted all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds right now. And some of them are absolutely fantastic.
Except this tradition isn’t traditional at all. In fact, it’s the very opposite. There is nothing remotely British about the ready ease of scooping soft, pliable flesh from a jubilantly coloured pumpkin to form a 3-D rendition of a Pixar character, then placing it on the doorstep with a bowl of candy to delight passing children. Too simple; too sociable; too American.
I punched the air with glee yesterday when English Heritage suggested a return to carving turnips into Jack-o’-Lanterns instead. Ah, I love the smell of singed root vegetable covered in melted wax in the morning. And Savlon, of course, for the hand blisters inflicted scooping the damn thing.
Because a traditional British Halloween – as my generation experienced in the 1970s – should begin with observing pumpkin carving on American import TV, requesting a pumpkin from one’s mother and being point blank refused on the grounds of wastage and whimsy.
“We don’t have pumpkins in this country,” my mother would say, continuing her personal parental tradition of substituting lies for facts. See also: the Tooth Fairy has requested your dummies to make into birthday presents; and Fred the cat has packed a suitcase of Whiskas and gone to live in Cornwall. Lies.
Eventually – after much grizzling about the pumpkin – we would be handed a sludge-coloured Cumbrian turnip which had been sitting in a farmer’s barn for at least nine weeks. It was harder than marble.
Then the fun began.
And by fun, I mean the excruciating, character-building pain of making almost no impact on root vegetable with a bent teaspoon for eight hours at a time.
Eventually we children might rebel and seek alternative, contraband carving implements: dad’s Black and Decker hacksaw; a serrated-edge bread knife; a Swiss Army blade; plus any other implements that gave potential for a trip to A&E and playground bragging rights of butterfly stitches.
Then, for the very best bit, the carving of the face. As long as you wanted triangles for eyes and a rectangle mouth – well, the sky was the limit. Almost all Halloween turnips looked like John Prescott with indigestion. Not that this mattered, as the American tradition of “trick or treating” – touting your craftwork around the neighbourhood looking for chocolates or money – was still called, in Britain, “door-to-door begging” or “extortion via menaces”.
So the turnip never left the house.
In truth, the only Halloween passion that the United Kingdom and America have shared for centuries is our joint yearning to be scared sleepless by the darkest recesses of our imagination.
Yet, in embracing America’s passion for Halloween – the parties, the dressing up, the supermarket spin-offs, the glorious commodification – we have also embraced its cry-baby culture over offensive and problematic costumes. One of my darkest fears, for example, is being murdered, raped or kidnapped by one of the 211 (and still counting) dangerous patients which my nearby mental health unit, the John Howard Centre in Homerton, has allowed to escape since 2001.
Now that’s terrifying.
But I certainly will not be attending any private Halloween house-party wearing a white doctor’s coat with ketchup down the arm pretending to be a cunning escapee, because I understand now this might prove unbelievably offensive to anyone who might see me in it.
It would also be equally offensive to people who didn’t see me but heard about it later on Facebook. In fact, I should have probably added a Halloween trigger warning to this paragraph.
Please be sure that I am currently no-platforming myself from a number of universities even for casually imagining this Halloween costume – which, although it is my greatest fear, is a problematic sort of fear and should not be shared, even at Sheila at No 64’s behind-closed-doors Halloween knees-up.
Other Halloween costumes I am self-vetoing are: the Ebola nurse, not appropriate even if it is evoking one of the most terrifying diseases on the planet; stockings and suspenders like Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I now hear are transphobic; the sexy nurse, which supports sexual harassment; and Mafia boss – glamourises gun violence and is anti-Italian.
Someone has already been publicly shamed for dressing as Cecil the lion, which is thoroughly offensive to anyone with a recently deceased Zimbabwean lion among their next of kin.
Suffice to say wearing anything involving a sombrero is completely racist, even if you do really, really love Old El Paso fajita sauce.
The safest way to celebrate Halloween in 2015 is exactly as we did in the 1980s – by placing a bed sheet over one’s head five minutes before calling your mini-cab and saying: “Wooh … I’m a ghost.”
We have approximately five years in the UK before people begin “identifying as a member of the after-life” and finding this offensive.
This sort of thing scares me more than anything.
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