Mitch Benn: Happy Halloween for truly scary times

PUBLISHED: 16:00 27 October 2017

1950s American teenagers bobbing for apples

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The comedian, musician and writer on how American Halloween supplanted the 'British' Halloween of old

Just one of the many exciting side-benefits of my rapidly advancing years, along with the receding hairline and similarly receding eyesight, is a marked acceleration in just how rapidly the aforementioned years appear to be advancing.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself constantly startled by the calendar. 2017 has slipped past me almost unnoticed; in my head, it’s still about April. I’d only just managed to convince myself that it is in fact October and now October is almost gone. My late father (the anniversary of his death at the end of last month came round far sooner than I’d expected) told me that this apparent speeding up of the hours of one’s life never stops, however old one gets.

I think it might be a function of one’s perception of time being relative to how much time one has seen… when you’re a child, the idea of waiting a year for something is an unimaginable endurance, as a year might represent about 20% of all the time you can remember. At my age, having to wait a year for something is a minor inconvenience.

In any event, if I had any doubt that we were in fact at the end of October I would only have to stroll down a high street; the stores are full of (largely) orange and purple nick-necks and novelties heralding what is still, in this country, a relatively new festive season; American Halloween.

I’ve been racking my brain to try and determine at what point American Halloween – for that is now what’s celebrated in the UK on October 31 – supplanted the ‘British’ Halloween of old.

It’s certainly within my lifetime; as a kid back in the 1970s (and to a lesser extent the 1980s) I remember the old traditions of bob-apple, duck-apple and various other apple-based indoor games.

It was explained to me – genuine experts of folkloric traditions feel free to send corrective emails if I’ve got this wrong – that these traditions stemmed from the superstition that Evil Things would walk abroad on the night before All Hallows’ Day (at which point they would be banished whence they came) and that as such all Good People should find ways to amuse themselves at home (at what point, and by whom, it was decreed that such entertainments should consist largely of finding ways of making apples trickier to eat, was never made clear).

I seem to recall that the American traditions of fancy dress and Trick Or Treat were known to us, through various television shows and movies, but they didn’t seem to catch on (despite sounding a lot more fun).

If there was a turning point, it was probably the release of Spielberg’s classic E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in late 1982. In the extremely unlikely event that you haven’t seen it, there’s a scene in which the three children who are harbouring the stranded alien take advantage of Halloween to smuggle him out of the house – the whole neighbourhood is out and about and dressed up as monsters of one kind or another, so they sling a sheet over him and pretend it’s tiny Drew Barrymore in a comedy ghost costume, remember? American Halloween looked like such a riot compared to ours that Tricky Apple Night’s days were numbered.

My kids have never known any other sort of Halloween and it’s become a pivotal moment in their year, and not just because of the mind-boggling quantities of sweeties involved. There’s something in the childish imagination which relishes Scary Things. It is still curious, when one takes a step backwards, to contemplate a kids’ festival which revolves almost entirely around imagery from movies which the kids themselves aren’t allowed to see, but there’s no denying that kids of all ages love themselves a bit of Gothic Horror as long as it’s presented in a benign context (and there’s chocolate to be had).

And it’s not just children; for as long as there have been stories, there have been scary stories; as soon as there were movies there were scary movies, if we ever invent full-sensory immersion virtual reality entertainment, we’ll have scary full-sensory immersion virtual reality experiences. Horror is pretty much the only absolutely constant genre in fiction (apart from porn, but that’s a subject for another column).

If anything, our taste for fictitious horror increases as the horrors of the real world abate. We live – despite appearances, or what the Daily Mail may tell you – in one of the safest places in the world in the safest period in human history.

Living in Britain in the early 21st century, we are statistically far less likely to die violently than pretty much anyone who’s ever lived. Perhaps there lurks, in the murkier corners of our collective psyche, some need to see pain, blood and anguish (if only to experience the sense of relief that it’s happening to someone else) that our forebears had only to look around them to satisfy. What need had one for The Walking Dead or the latest Saw sequel in an age of plague and public executions?

It’s going to be interesting (and not in a good way) to see how our appetite for imaginary horrors bears up over the next few years if the twin real-world horrors of Trump and Brexit continue to menace our future. Halloween 2020 might be an altogether less boisterous affair.

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