Call me a killjoy, but I loathe Hallowe'en. What's it for? Are we celebrating, or remembering? Or just trying to find a way to spook old ladies who live alone and are obliged to sit in pitch darkness for an entire evening in the hope that they don't get dog poo posted through their letter box from oversized trick-or-treaters?

And when did the costumes get so out of hand? When did they get sexy? I blame the Americans. They've turned Hallowe'en into an unavoidable commercial blowout, all suspenders and Scream masks and too many sweets. Even the Obamas were snapped recently buying no fewer than ten giant pumpkins from a farmer's market in Hampton, Virginia. I know you're the president, but ten? Really? It's too much.

There's a nasty edge, too. Recently CNN reported that the most popular adult costume in the US this year is Charlie Sheen, which seems cruel (a Sheen face mask will set you back a mere $19.99, in case you were wondering). And the kids' attire of choice? "We have at least four customers a day coming in asking for Angry Birds," says Sara Swietyniowski of Spirit Hallowe'en in Mentor, Ohio. This surely is a sign of a festival that has lost its way. Angry Birds is a game that bored people play on their phones, not a costume. What happened to fake blood and sheets with holes for eyes?

That's the problem with Hallowe'en: it's a muddle. I've never known a word unravel in so many different directions. It derives from All-Hallows Eve, the night before All-Hallows Day, or All Saints' Day. Which seems simple enough until you try to find out why 31 October became a festival in
its own right. Some historians think its origins are in the Roman feast of Pomona, goddess of fruit. Others believe it is Celtic, linked to the festival of Samhain, which celebrates the harvest. The witches and ghosts and other accessories are a confusing confluence of Celtic myth and Gothic literature, of Dracula and Frankenstein and Scottish poets such as Robert Burns.

Even the pumpkins were a later, American addition. Carving a squash was originally a way of remembering the souls held in Purgatory, but over here we used to do it with turnips. Turnips! Now that's a tradition worth reviving.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.