Halloween: The Rules

I stand with my dead son in the hall.  He’s giving me a strange look.  But, with one eye gouged out and glistening nerves dangling from the dark prosthetic hole, strange looks is about all he can give me.

‘No,’ I say firmly, ‘you’re just too big now.’

His hunchback visibly slumps. ‘But Pete and Max and all the others are…’

‘You’re fifteen now, bigger than most adults and if a hoard of kids your size came knocking on my door, I’d be terrified.’

‘You’re supposed to be,’ George retorts sulkily, ‘that’s the point.’Illustration by Don Grant

Is it?  I’m really not sure.  Trouble is, like fast-food, Mother’s Day or chronic obesity, we seem to adopt American traditions without a thorough understanding of the rules.

Wimpy, the great British precursor to MacDonalds, believed they were providing fast-food by making sure their waitresses served tables quickly.  The idea of buying straight from a counter was just too uncivilised to contemplate.

And Mother’s Day, devoid of any established ceremony, perpetually feels like an awkward obligation to bestow potted plants.  We can’t even do US-style corpulence without feeling guilty and trying to negate it with self-effacing jokes whereas Americans seem to happily get through life never mentioning the elephant, or elephants, in the room.

If we had any flair for homemade festivities, October could have been the month dominated, not by its last day but by, say, national Conker Day, or a Festival of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness or a celebration of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. We could dress up with eye patches and demand kisses from hardy sailors rather than sweets from strangers.

Indeed, this year’s baying for the blood of Rebekah Brookes led me to think that we might return to more traditional British style Halloween Witch hunting.  But then along came those meddling kids looting London during their recessionary Costa curtailed summer holidays and it brought home all the fears that householders may experience when opening the door to masked teenagers intent on booty.

My own first ‘Trick or Treat’ was forty years ago. Six years old and invited to observe this foreign ritual by my friend Eugene who lived in a Kensington mansion block popular with American families. Using some old pillow cases to unwittingly dress up like a couple of lynch-happy white supremacists we glided around a carefully organised route of flats inside the block.  At each door there was a ‘treat’ but, not understanding the rules of this game, I was too terrified to enjoy it. I understood the basics of the verbal contract we were making and worried about what would happen if we actually had to ‘trick’ someone. Before we had left, Eugene’s ‘mom’ had told me that ‘back home’ a trick would be to rub soap on their windows.

We were seven stories up.

So nowadays, as soon as the supermarkets pack the barbecues away, their shelves begin to buckle with halloweenia.  By the night of October 31st  the streets buzz with ghouls and waddling pumpkins not completely sure what they’re doing, or why.

You might ask why do we need rules? Why not just enjoy it? But maybe that’s why these events seem so alien.  Far too much freedom, no room for faux pas.  If you want to make something British – give it rules. Not laws, to be policed by a third party, far too totalitarian, but rules that mean we can all police each other’s compliance and be outraged by, and justify exclusion of, anybody who doesn’t follow them.  Watch Downton Abbey and you’re experiencing that distant comfort afforded by everyone knowing their place and keeping to it -not enforced by the state but by social contract.

So to help Halloween become a less foreign event these are six basic rules I’ve worked out from years trudging around with my own children:

1)      No flats – you can’t get sweets from an entryphone.

2)      They’re ‘sweets’ not ‘candy’.

3)      Only houses that place a pumpkin in the window.

4)      Avoid all celebrities’ houses And obviously whatever day it is, never let your daughter knock on Michael Winner’s door… he’s a married man now.

5)     Never ever actually do a ‘trick’; whatever you’ve threatened.

6)     Always be cuter than you are scary.  Remember it’s an American tradition.  Think Disney and Barbie not Manson and waterboarding; it’s like the movies, all popcorn and happy endings and any horror more kitsch than kitchen knife. It’s little kids inappropriately dressed as vampirella or pumpkin outfits, being a bit sweet when they come to your door.  Not the terror of being mugged on your own doorstep. If your kid is big enough to scare someone without the make-up they’re too big for trick or treat.

‘George,’ I say, ‘If you’re big enough to cause actual bodily harm you’re too big to be in a gang beating at people’s doors.  Them’s the rules.’

He looks at the flat door longingly, despairing that I may well have a lecture attached to my homily.

‘But, happily,’ I say, ‘it also means you’re big enough to be looking after the littler ones as they haunt the streets.  And I assure you, cutie booty is far bigger.’

He glances back at his little vampire sisters, blood streaming from the corners of their mouths, patiently waiting for me to take them out.  With a grunt he beckons them and nods towards the door.

As the monsters leave I settle down.  For once I’m going to enjoy Halloween.


A version of this article appears here in

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