There’s something very medieval about the resurgence of Halloween and the form in which it has come. When I was growing up it involved no adults, just children dressed up in sheets who went out alternately begging for sweets and throwing eggs. (My siblings and I did not go round knocking on people’s doors; it wasn’t a middle class thing to do.) It lasted one evening only, and in Yorkshire anyway was over by 9pm because of the cold.
At university I got into the history: I was an extravagantly religious undergraduate and All Hallows’ Eve before All Saints’ Day appeared on my liturgical radar. I read Religion and the Decline of Magic and also some ghost stories; I became interested in it as a focus of neo-paganism, a minority interest, as far as I knew.
Later I became less overtly religious and more corporate and the phenomenon disappeared from my radar.
Now it’s back. You can hardly have missed it.
Partly, of course, it’s a marketing opportunity brought in from America, which fills the gap in the retail calendar between the return to school and Christmas. Partly this year it was a chance to note the many similarities between Donald Trump and a pumpkin.
But it’s also been more.
Carnivals and other pagan festivals in the Medieval Ages and in Elizabethan England were, anthropologists generally agree, a chance to let off steam. They were the time of the year at which the social order was turned topsy-turvy, the fool was dressed as a king for the day, the drunkenness was condoned; all with the understanding that the following day order would be restored.
Halloween and days like it were when disorder and misrule were condoned, so that the rest of the year they did not appear.
Look at the last few days. Masked motorcyclists causing police chases across central London. Warnings against the dangers of adults in clown costumes. Respectable men and women you live next door to being made-up with white faces, blue hair and gore. (Maybe you were made-up yourselves.)
There’s a freedom in putting on a mask; in getting dressed up; in being someone else for the evening. Mostly it’s fun. Sometimes it’s symbolic of something else. This year felt to me like the latter. The Brexit clouds are looming. There is terror both at letting immigrants in and at pushing them away. The Labour Party has collapsed in on itself. (The centre will not hold.) The US may yet elect a pumpkin.
Everything is being depicted in every shade of newspaper as being done to Us by The Other Side. (‘We’ are of course on the beleaguered Right Side.) No-one seems to feel any sense of agency. Respectable higher-rate tax-payers have been bruised by a Brexiteering population who have had their jobs stolen by forinners, who are being held in camps when all they want is freedom – but some of whom, reason suggests, must be terrorists. Even Boris Johnson surely feels that events have gone against him. (He could be the best clown of them all.)
In this environment the safety valve of misrule has more power than on a usual Halloween. Let’s hope that some steam has now been let off, and the masks will be put away until next year.