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?