Despite Covid, Halloween can be spooktastic
Is it time to rethink Halloween? Its opponents are delighted that the pandemic has put a damper on this year’s fun. But fans of the festival are determined to find safe ways to celebrate.
Ghosts and ghouls, sweet treats and jack-o'-lanterns. Halloween is almost here and people all over the world are carving their pumpkins and planning their costumes.
But this year, things will be different. Social distancing rules prevent many traditional activities from going ahead. Organisers have shut haunted houses and cancelled scary movie nights. Officials have banned public gatherings and advised against trick or treating.
This is bad news for fun-loving zombies and vampires everywhere, but fantastic for those who hate Halloween. Announcing a curfew in Campania, Italy, the governor blasted this Saturday’s holiday as “a monument to imbecility” and a “stupid American extravagance”.
Many critics regard Halloween as a commercialised American invention and a waste of money. Environmentalists highlight the enormous number of plastic wrappers and costumes thrown away each year. And some conservative Christians describe Halloween as evil “Satan worship”.
However, the festival has deep roots in European history. During the feast of Samhain, Celts believed the dead walked in the land of the living. To avoid being carried off by the dead, they wore disguises, lit fires, and made offerings to their deceased relatives.
In the Middle Ages, these traditions were incorporated into the Christian festival of Hallowstide, dedicated to remembering the dead. In many Catholic countries this religious holiday is still observed between 31 October and 2 November.
Scottish and Irish migrants brought Halloween to America in the 1840s, where it grew into one of its biggest holidays. Every year, Americans harvest 70,000 acres of pumpkins and spend nearly $9bn on sweets and costumes.
Historian Nicholas Rogers says Halloween has now become a global phenomenon as it completes its transformation from Celtic ritual to a night to party and dress up. “And, of course, social media really encourages this kind of thing”. England, Germany and Japan have all become Halloween hot spots.
But can the fun carry on in a pandemic? Professor Lorna Piatti-Farnell says it is a “celebration of both the living and the dead” and we should “hold on to customs that bring the community together”. So, many people are determined to get creative and celebrate safely, without spreading the virus.
Masks are a big part of Halloween, but most do not offer the same protection as those worn during the pandemic. But with a bit of imagination, a zombie doctor costume can combine a terrifying disguise with a Covid-safe mask.
Trick or treating is a challenge when everyone must remain socially distanced. One popular solution in the US is the candy chute, a homemade slide for dispensing sweets and avoiding physical contact.
Other ideas include a Halloween treasure hunt, with prizes for spotting ghoulish decorations in neighbours’ windows. Or an online party to celebrate from the safety of your own home.
So is it time to rethink Halloween?
Some say yes, Halloween must change. It used to be about remembering the dead, but today it is focused on spending money on costumes we will only wear once and sweets that are bad for our health. Spreading Covid is just one more reason why Halloween is an extravagance we can no longer afford. We should use this opportunity to think again about what we are celebrating and the best way to do it.
Others say don’t listen to the killjoys. There are times for being serious and times to have fun. As the days get colder and the nights grow longer, Halloween is the perfect opportunity to be a little silly and a little bit scared, forget our worries, and enjoy a night with friends. Of course, this year will be different. But after the pandemic, Halloween will still be here – as terrifying as ever!
- Is it sometimes fun to be scared?
- Is Halloween a “stupid American extravagance”?
- Create a Halloween decoration to put in your window.
- Find out the local guidelines for social distancing and design a Halloween game that follows the rules. Use the Expert Links for ideas.
Some People Say...
“Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world.”William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English playwright.
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that Halloween is a night of fun and games. Sociologists call this a transgressive ritual, when the normal social rules don’t apply. These customs developed in pre-modern societies where everyday life was governed by strict rules and hierarchies. Wearing a disguise or playing a trick on someone could get you into a lot of trouble in medieval Europe. So Halloween has always been popular with the parts of society feeling the most pressure to conform to the rules.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around whether Halloween still performs this role in society. Some argue that we no longer have strict social rules, and Halloween is just an extreme version of normal life. Christian opponents of Halloween argue that there are some rules that should not be broken and that it is never acceptable to dress up as ghosts or devils, even as a game. Others disagree and argue society is full of social rules and people still use Halloween as a chance to let off steam.
- The tradition of putting candles in hollowed-out vegetables began in Ireland with turnips. The name comes from a natural phenomenon called ignis fatuus (Latin for “giddy flame”) where gas and water vapour create strange ghostly lights above a bog or marsh.
- Governor Vincenzo De Luca has banned Italians in the region around Naples from going out after 10pm. De Luca is known for his colourful outbursts on social media, bemoaning the “irresponsible” behaviour of young Neapolitans flouting social distancing rules.
- Americans spend $3.4bn on costumes alone and do not limit their outfits to the supernatural. Some of the most popular costumes of 2019 were pirates, superheroes and animals.
- Satan worship
- Despite Halloween’s association with American culture, polling shows that a third of Americans avoid Halloween and 14% avoid its pagan elements. Many Christians celebrate “light parties” as an alternative to Halloween.
- Pronounced “Sowan”, this Celtic festival marked the transition from the warmer half of the year into the winter months. It is still observed today by neopagans and Wiccans.
- In the 8th century AD, Pope Greogory III moved All Saints’ Day from 13 May to 1 November, where it coincided with Samhein and pagan rituals surrounding remembering the dead.
- Catholic countries
- In Mexico, the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) is an important national holiday, when families visit and decorate their relatives’ tombs. Other Latin American countries also observe the festival, often incorporating indigenous traditions and beliefs.
- An annual Halloween party held by US troops in Frankenstein castle helped popularise the festival in Germany. This castle near Frankfurt is believed to have inspired Mary Shelley’s gothic novel.
- Home to cosplay (costume-wearing as performance art), Japan has fully embraced Halloween. Every year tens of thousands turn out for the Kawasaki Halloween Parade in costumes inspired by film and popular culture. However, this year the parade will take place online.