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Why doesn’t Britain go as wild for Halloween as America? – The Guardian

Why, after decades of commercial and cultural pressure, hasn’t the American version of Halloween really taken off in Britain? I think it’s because it is an anodyne version of something that lies much deeper between us.

I’ve spent October in New England, where every other house is wrapped in cobwebs crawling with giant spiders, and huge inflatable pumpkins perch on front lawns like lurid barrage balloons. In the UK, supermarkets and Strictly Come Dancing are determined to sell us the same story, but our Halloween still fails to reach US proportions, where more than 70% of citizens participate, spending $9.1bn on candy and costumes ranging from vampires and ghouls to Wonder Woman and Disney Princesses.

America’s Halloween isn’t actually frightening at all. It’s in part a celebration of the fall – a glorious season whose natural significance is still hardwired in a vast country much of which remains wild. New England’s trees are vivid with oranges, reds and yellows, and our often dour, damp and foggy autumn is nothing like their Indian summer. (Although, as Horatio Clare points out, the phrase, coined by 18th-century European colonists in North America to describe “the bright, still season in which native raids ceased and the warriors went home to harvest”, has its own ambivalence, “because ‘Indians’ were held to be treacherous, and the magical season was brief and unreliable”.)

But this cultural divide goes deeper than the weather. It speaks to the notion that we have conquered the darkness, both actual and metaphorical, that Halloween commemorated. The festival was brought to America by Irish immigrants for whom the rites of Samhain marked a thinning of the membrane between worlds of the living and the dead. “Ghost turnips” were carved – the forerunners of modern pumpkins – and “guising” – going from house to house in masks and costumes – was practised. That meaning was lost in translation in the 20th century, leaving behind the creepy tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe’s eldritch raven. Halloween was sanitised in a culture where the reality of death was avoided and atavistic shadows were relegated to “that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night”, as F Scott Fitzgerald saw it.

The contemporary American critic Andrew Delbanco has noted, “As we lose touch with the idea of evil, we seem to need more and more vivid representations of it.” But the transatlantic Halloween drew on cartoon images: there was none of the terror of the Salem witch trials in Samantha’s nose-twitching in Bewitched, and The Munsters and The Addams Family reconfigured Frankenstein and Dracula as soap-gothic versions of the American nuclear family.

In Northern Europe, horror had a different antecedence, reaching back to the Middle Ages, when the Black Death left the land untilled and the woods became sites of fear, a collective memory that fed the Brothers Grimm’s grotesque tales. Authors such as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and MR James added the psychosexual angst of the industrial age, culminating in the authentically eerie German expressionist films, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The Golem and Nosferatu (out of which David Bowie would invent his bisexual, bi-species Diamond Dogs persona, Halloween Jack).

Under the Californian sun, Hollywood turned nightmares into comic-books (although a recent New York Times article notes that both Frankenstein and Dracula have acquired powerful undertones of the queer other).

As the US writer Joyce Carol Oates notes, horror “renders us children again” with its “suspension of ordinary scepticism”. America’s Puritan founders sought to transcend pagan European festivals; ironically, Halloween became a secular alternative to Christmas. Yet here we are, in our first Trump Halloween and a new era of Manichean polarities of good and evil staked out by the fundamentalist right and the outraged left. If there’s one terrible tradition of trick or treat, it’s the hooded and sheeted Ku Klux Klan (whose support Trump has failed to disavow), their post-civil war costumes designed to invoke vengeful ghosts of Confederate soldiers, night-riding in murderous pursuit of African Americans.

Anti-black, anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic, the Klan was revived in 1915 – via another silent movie: DW Griffiths’ pernicious The Birth of a Nation, apparently condoned by President Woodrow Wilson. Ten years later in 1925, in Provincetown, Cape Cod, where I stay, the lawn in front of the local Catholic church – built to serve Portuguese immigrants – was planted not with wobbly zombies, but a fiery cross to intimidate non-Anglo-Saxon incomers.

We British can hardly occupy the moral high ground. One reason why Halloween did not take hold here was because of its proximity to our own pyromaniacal Bonfire Night, with its anti-Catholic echoes of martyrs burned at the stake. Meanwhile, new shocking gestures have appeared in Provincetown – now renowned for its LGBTQ community – where households marked Trump’s inauguration by hanging the stars and stripes upside down: a sacrilegious protest for a patriotic country fearful of their new president and his truly scary tricks and tweets.

Why doesn’t Britain go as wild for Halloween as America? – The Guardian

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