Scary stuff

What do Edward Cullen, Captain Jack Sparrow, Michael Jackson and Tinkerbell have in common? No, they aren’t all from films produced by the same Hollywood company. They are Halloween costumes being donned this year. If you are anywhere in the United States on October 31 you’re likely to see all four of them walking down the street together

Some 2,000 years ago the Celts, whose new year began on November 1, celebrated the festival of Samhain on the evening before. The ancient peoples believed the line between the living and dead blurred during the night allowing the spirits of the dead to temporarily return to earth.

In the seventh century Pope Boniface IV named November 1 All Saints’ Day, a day in which to honour saints and martyrs. “All Hallows”, many believe, was an attempt to move away from the pagan ritual started by the Celtic people and focus more on those who died after living a virtuous life. From that point the focus shifted to the religious feast of November 1 and the following All Souls Day -- commemorations which helped believers consider their inevitable death and focus their lives on the things that truly mattered.

These days, however, Halloween in the US has evolved into a humungous celebration of what doesn’t matter at all: dressing up, collecting candy and pretending to be scared of ghosts. It is an all-but-official holiday in the US. Companies allow their employees to come to work in fancy dress, graveyards pop up overnight in people’s front yards, ghostly creatures lurk in windows and doorway and more than 105 million citizens participate in the activities that surround the holiday. There are haunted houses, scary movie marathons and costume parties.

Other nations might be a bit perplexed by all this hullabaloo over childish things. A government website attempts to explain it -- 19th century Irish immigrants can take a lot of the blame, evidently -- and make it respectable by noting that many kids collect money for UNICEF rather than treats for themselves. But thinking Americans will tend to find themselves in sympathy with The Onion, which laments the demise of belief in “real ghouls” warded off by animal sacrifice as “the reason for the season”. (Make sure you watch that video.)

The true reason for Halloween in its present incarnation is all too obvious. Retailers, even in this time of recession, see it as a boost to business. Candy hits store shelves in September. Costume retailers crop up suddenly in vacant buildings to disappear again at the start of November. This year alone $4.75 billion will be spent on Halloween-related merchandise, with the average person spending $56.31 on the day, according to National Retail Federation. Due to the tough economic times, this total is down from last year’s personal spending total of $66.54. Still the number has grown steadily over the years. In 2005 US consumers spent $3.29 billion on Halloween, proving the holiday has become more materialistic over the years.

Grade-school children have school parties in which they parade around in their hand-made or store-bought costumes. In the afternoon of October 31 they tick-or-treat, walking door-to-door to beg for candy. By the end of the night they’ve collected many pounds of goodies as well as stomach aches, sugar-highs and tooth cavities. Girls dress as princesses, witches and movie characters. Boys go around as pirates, Star Wars characters and superheros. For most of the 58 million kids who plan to dress up this year the day is all about the candy.

But it isn’t just those under the age of 12 who look forward to the event. Adults aged 18 to 34 account for a large part of the Halloween sales -- nearly 50 per cent. According to the NRF more than 47 million US adults plan to don a costume this year.

Why? Because, it’s the ultimate day of escape from reality. Instead of admonishing people to consider their mortality, Halloween now touts the mantra: Go ahead be someone you’re not. So, suddenly, the good-natured grade school teacher heads out for the night dressed as a scantily-clad wench. The hard-working real estate broker and his marketing girlfriend go to a party as Adam and Eve – fig leaves included (thank goodness).

While every adult celebrating Halloween does not subscribe to the less-is-more motto when it comes to costumes, most do love the opportunity to be creative with their appearance. Some US fashion blogs offer do-it-yourself costume ideas, like the Mad Hatter. YouTube subscribers have uploaded a plethora of videos on how to apply makeup for any look including a Corpse Bride and Tinkerbell.

For 2009, the most popular adult costumes are indicative of major trends in US culture. Witches and vampires top the list; due in large part to the wildly popular Twilight series written by Stephenie Meyer, as well as the TV shows Vampire Diaries and True Blood. “Pop culture always influences Halloween costumes and it will be interesting to see how creative Americans can get this year,” says Tracy Mullin, NRF president and CEO. Michael Jackson outfits and Slumdog Millionaire-inspired costumes are also popular this year.

Incidentally, the nurse and politician costumes, which were big sellers in years past, aren’t topping any lists this year. “The departure of both nurses and politicians from the top costumes list could be an indication that Americans would like to shelve the health care reform debate – at least for one night – to have a little bipartisan fun,” Mullin says.

And with the costume comes the party. Some towns and colleges are known from coast to coast for hosting the most outrageous gatherings. For instance, University of Wisconsin at Madison students traditionally gathered on State Street every Halloween for a party that usually hit 100,000 attendees. As the parties year after year got out of hand, including the death of one man in 1983, broken windows and impromptu bonfires, university officials began fencing off the State Street area and charging admission in order to reduce and control the crowd. The party still packs the city street.

Attendees at the UW-Madison party are no different from the other party-revellers across the country. They are out looking for a good time; taking advantage of a few hours as a different persona to forget the stresses of life, the current economic crisis, the increasing unemployment rate and the dismal health care debate. If it makes them look like overgrown kids, what do they care?

Katie Hinderer is a US-based freelance journalist whose work has been published in the New York Times, and among others. This Halloween she'll be dressing as a cowgirl, boots and hat included.


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