Published in The Guardian

Are you about to carve out your pumpkin to make a jack ‘o’lantern, fill barrels of water with apples, or outfit the children in masks and witches hats for trick or treat (and preparing the neighbours with previously planted sweet offerings?) Or are you secretly relieved that it’s half-term and Halloween can be quietly forgotten this year.

For such an ancient festival of obscure origins, Hallowe’en remains a remarkably potent idea, whether its being celebrated by a dedicated coven of witches, a classroom of giggling five year olds or transformed into an alternative Christian celebration, like the Saints and Sausages parties offered by the Evangelical Alliance, one of the main religious groups active in opposing Halloween.

Quite a number of schools and churches have banished Halloween, arguing that children are unnecessarily frightened by the motley of ghouls and goblins, and risk exposure to the more arcane dangers of the occult. Recent controversy surrounding accusations of satanic ritual abuse has also served to exacerbate that concern. Keith Ewing, press officer for the Evangelical Alliance says, ” We are concerned to warn against the dangers, so we suggest alternatives, such as clown parties or saints and sausages, which have all the fun and games of Halloween without the grotesqueness and the negativity.”
But it is the element of deliberately induced fear that is most worrying to parents who have doubts about Halloween and scarey children’s books. Consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, Guinevere Tufnell, suggests however that such experiences can be beneficial, “They can help children to learn what is dangerous and how to handle difficult situations. In childhood there are many anxieties that crop up, and learning to manage fear and anxiety is potentially quite useful.” She stresses the importance of parental control of the situation, however, so that children learn to distinguish between what is real and what is pretend.

In trying to protect children from potentially frightening situations we may be sanitising their experiences and perhaps denying them essential mechanisms for coping with the real world. It is a bit like cheating to get rid of Halloween and ghosts but keep Santa Claus and fairies. Halloween or similar celebrations such as the Mexican Day of the Dead still function as vital and meaningful rituals in many cultures, helping children (and adults) come to terms with life and death.

Dr Richard Williams, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Sick Children, compares the issue to the debate over the effects of TV violence on children, stressing that the vulnerability of the recipient has to be borne in mind. “But protecting children from the negative side of life is not an adult task, we should be helping them to cope effectively, and using it as an opportunity for discussion..” In fact, he says, “Children can cope very well with the concept of death, sometimes better than adults.”

Sarah Lefanu, a writer and anthologist with a specific interest in science fiction and fantasy, will celebrate Halloween with her three children, aged 9, 6 and 4. “Children are responsive to the idea of spring, lambs and new birth and so on; I think they should experience the opposite too, the death of the year. It is a set of metaphors for dealing with the mystery of death and loss which it is important to explore imaginatively. I do think it is important for them to experience fear; they take pleasure in it. It’s all about maybe…”

Experiencing fear in these situations can also be a way of displacing their unconscious anxieties, even, paradoxically, reassuring. Scriptwriter David Pirie, father of two children aged 7 and 5, has often written about horror and fantasy and he acknowledges, “You do have to be careful of course, but it’s important to understand that you can take pleasure in these things. The key thing is having a safe perspective, the ghost story round the fire with the wind whistling outside – it actually reinforces your sense of safety, so you can contemplate things beyond you. ” He adds, “It is so myopic to ban Halloween, as if children can’t cope with the concept of evil.”

Far from being a recent American import as is frequently assumed, Halloween is one of the two great pre-Christian Celtic fire festivals that marked the turning of the year. Beltane or May Day (also on the current hit list) welcomed the summer, and Samhain at the end of October, marked the beginning of winter and the end of the Celtic year.

Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough presents an almost cosy picture of Halloween, “Throughout Europe, Halloween, the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter, seems to have been of old the time of the year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and to comfort themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinsfolk.”

Subsequently Christians imposed All Saints Day on November 1st, thus Hallow’s Eve on October 31st, just as they imposed their patriarchal, sexually inhibited moral code on the matriarchal, and sexually permissive Celts. Later the traditional bonfires were moved to Guy Fawkes night. Trick or treat originated as placatory food offerings for the wandering dead.

Halloween could indeed be celebrated as a way of remembering rather fearing the dead, more like the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Since we lack such a ritual in our death denying calendar, perhaps it would be better to reclaim Halloween as a day of remembrance instead of banning it .

Childcare expert, Penelope Leach believes, “Halloween is a significant festival and I think it is better to involve children so they are participating rather than merely passive witnesses as they are to so much of the horror they see on television. It is better to help children cope with fears rather than try and avoid them. It is a way for them to come to terms with internal horrors. Children do enjoy horror, you just need to be sure they are able to cope with it.”

Lefanu, for example, says how much her 9 year old son enjoys ghost stories, “But he always likes me to read them with him.” Liverpool based psychology lecturer, Pierce O’Carroll, says his 5 year old son has been stirring magic potions and reciting spells all week, “He loves it. I don’t know whether he really understands it, but he loves the spookiness of it all. Children do like scarey things, there is something primitive about it which I think it is healthy to give expression to.”

Susan Girvan, a teacher in Devon and mother of four children aged between 9 and 3, says robustly, “I think it’s a good idea for a party, it is a way of getting things out of their system.” She believes children today are much more accustomed to fear, because of their exposure to it on TV and video, “In a way they can handle it better,” she says.

She is less enthusiastic about trick or treat, and loathes the shops full of gunge, blood capsules and Dracula’s teeth which seem to be the inevitable commercial accompaniment. Penelope Leach echoes her opinion of trick or treat, “It is like teaching children blackmail.” she says.

David Pirie believes there is altogether too much razzmatazz surrounding Halloween for it to be truly scary. “For me the best thing about Halloween, was and still is, walking along a quiet street at dusk, that sense of possibility….leaving it all to the imagination. ” The whiff of woodsmoke that just might be brimstone after all.