This month, it feels as if New Yorkers are buzzing about two things. One is the presidential debates, which have left millions of Americans transfixed by an all-too-rare communal television experience (or, as the office slang goes, a “water cooler” moment). The other (far more trivial) point of communal frenzy is the onset of Halloween. Yes, I know that for anyone outside the US, particularly over the age of 12, it might seem peculiar that a pumpkin-focused festival could provoke much interest. And I daresay there are still a few kid-free – or politics-obsessed – people here in the US who have somehow failed to notice the orange buzz.
But for anyone with a family, or who is plugged into a social media network, it is almost impossible to ignore the looming shadow of Halloween. Walk along the streets of New York, and you are regaled with specialist shops selling ghoulish masks and costumes. Hail a cab, and the back seat television screen will proclaim that the city is celebrating Halloween all month. On the city’s Upper East Side, a frenzy of “hedge fund Halloween” is under way: lavish town houses are being decorated with full-size models of skeletons, ghouls and cobwebs, with spooky music to boot. One of the most spectacular of these is owned by Marc Lasry, co-founder of Avenue Capital, who has decked out his mansion on 74th Street with skeleton heads, a giant inflatable ghost and bloody bodies hanging from a balcony. But a close rival is the nearby residence of Phil Falcone, owner of Harbinger Capital, which features more skeletons, giant bats, skulls and smoke machines.
It is not just New York that is haunted by the festival. In the US’s postwar years, Halloween was an event primarily focused on children. But in the past two decades it has expanded fast and this year, according to the National Retail Federation, a record 72 per cent of the population will celebrate (up from 69 per cent last year). It will cost Americans $80 per person on average, and total spending is projected at $8bn. Astonishingly, that is more than the sum being spent on the US election (estimated to be some $5.8bn right now). “By the time Halloween rolls around each year, it’s safe to say Americans have already spent two months preparing for one of the fastest-growing and most widely loved holidays of the year,” says Matthew Shay, NRF president. Yes, you read that right: two months.
So is this ghoulish frenzy a good thing? Many evangelical Christians would argue not. After all, the roots of Halloween come from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III tried to “Christianise” the festival by designating November 1 as All Saints’ Day. But, as Falcone’s house shows, it is the ghouls, devils and horror symbols that predominate today, in a way that some Christians hate.
I can understand some of that unease. My daughters and I have already carved out pumpkins, and I am happy to see them dressing up as ghosts or witches, to trick or treat. But I flinch when they ask to dress as “dead vampire brides”, “slain orphans” or “axe-murderers”. If nothing else, this smacks of a certain cultural desensitisation towards violence, particularly given the grisly (and costly) costumes on sale.
But leaving aside my own scruples, the more interesting question to pose is quite why Halloween continues to grow in power in our modern, cyber-obsessed world? One reason is undoubtedly the formidable corporate muscle that is now invested in the event. Another is the power of the US media in terms of spreading cultural norms, not just at home but elsewhere in the world. These days, Halloween customs are starting to be celebrated in parts of London on an “American” scale (check out, for example, Eldon Road in Kensington, which will be full of spooky revellers and lavishly decorated houses).
Personally, I like to think that there is something else that explains Halloween’s lure: it offers children and adults alike a chance to let off steam, in a communal way, in a manner that is sadly all too rare in today’s polarised, stressed world. The festival breaks the boundaries of the “normal”, but in a manner that still manages to unite many classes and ethnic groups. While the cultural symbols of Halloween might be spreading via cyberspace, the attraction of the festival is that it provides a real-life, shared social moment.
That might not quite justify the $8bn price tag. Far less mollify anyone who is shocked that the US is spending more money on ghouls than modern-day political campaigns. But in a polarised world, where it is hard to find shared social poles, these communal rituals offer a reason to cheer. No matter how much candy you do (or do not) eat.