A spooky costume can be a work of art. Don’t waste the opportunity. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty
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Feminists, it’s time to reclaim Halloween as a night to be scary

At that moment it hit me. From puberty onwards, I had lost Halloween. It had somehow ceased to be about bobbing for apples and warty witch masks, and had become all about sex. But no more.

Halloween has always been my favourite holiday. Is holiday is quite the right word, though? In our house, it was always more of a festival. When I was a child, preparations started early, with pumpkin-carving, the purchase of apples for bobbing, and costume preparations sometimes weeks in advance. Despite yearly accusations from media commentators of Halloween becoming increasingly Americanised, as a festival it always felt homely, comforting, non-commercial and, yes, British. It’s only natural that, as the British nights draw in and the crackles of the autumn leaves start to sound like the eerie, rasping whispers of corpses, that talk turns to ghosts and monsters and all things dark and unknown; those old, Pagan fears that have been recounted around fires for centuries.

My mother came from what could be described as a rather Halloween-y family. As a child, she carved faces into turnips, and had a wealth of ghost stories from which to draw on for inspiration (on her side of the family, it’s perhaps more unusual for someone not to have ever made some kind of contact with the “spirit world” than it is to have seen a ghost, but that’s another story). And so she always threw herself into Halloween with enthusiasm, helping me decorate the log shed, turning it into a haunted house complete with gunge box and eerie soundtrack, and playing old English parlour games with us, one of which involved playing a fortune teller who urges the children to draw strange patterns on their faces by candlelight, only for her victims to emerge from the room covered in soot. Her friends loved it, too, and would produce finger sandwiches that looked like actual fingers, glazed with bloody ketchup and with an almond on the top for a pointed nail.

For a child fascinated by all things spooky and weird, Halloween was a vehicle for my love for Meg and Mog, Scooby Doo, the Worst Witch, and later, Harry Potter. It could be that I was slightly odd – my favourite toy was a glow-in-the-dark rubber skeleton called Mary, who had been banned by my Christian nursery for reasons of religious sensitivity. I also had an imaginary friend called Russell the Witch, with whom I would concoct mud pies in the garden. Later, aged five, my fascination with witches would get me into trouble with the Methodist parents of my best friend Sally. “Please don’t let them play witches anymore,” her mother said to my mother, one day after school. “We actually believe in witches and are very frightened of them.”

When my mother told me this, I nodded solemnly, directing Russell towards the alleyway at the bottom of the garden, and we said no more about it.

The next week, my mother picked me up from school. “Did you play with Sally today?” she asked. I nodded to confirm that yes; I had indeed played with Sally.

“What did you play?” asked my mother (I imagine somewhat nervously).

“Car crashes,” I said.

“Oh,” said my mother. “Were you the doctors and nurses who made everyone better?”

“No,” I said. “We were the witches who made it happen.”

Over a decade later, when we were about 15 and after we had moved far, far away, Sally sent me a letter saying that she had converted to Paganism. She was now an actual, fully blown witch, and there’s a lesson there for those who attempt to suppress the passions stirring in the minds of children. “So you’re scared of witches, mum? Well, get a load of this!”

But let’s consign Sally, her pentagrams and her disappointed mother to the mists of history and consider how much of our Halloween experience is told through costumes. Every year, the media machine (which has included, at times, myself) churns out commentary on Halloween costumes – which ones are offensive? Which ones are feminist, or anti-feminist? Which baby-dressed-as-a-lobster-in-a-pot looks cutest? Which ones are topical and offensive? (The accolade this year goes to the “Sexy Ebola Suit”, only £49.99.) Which celebrity had the best costume? And on, and on, and on – we love it, and I’m no different.

But this year, a webpage called “The Evolution of Women and Halloween” really got to me. In fact, I’d say it almost broke my heart. Its premise was simple: it showed a variety of themed costumes created for girls of various ages. The witch costume, for instance, starts out innocent enough for a five year old, with its pointy hat and its big belt buckle, but by the time you get to the full adult woman, the suggested costume has turned into full-blown stripper-with-a-cursory-nod-in-the-form-of-a-hat. If you look at that page, the same is true of the nurse costume, the pirate costume and, disturbingly, the Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz costume. I know that “sexy Halloween costumes” have been a matter for public discussion ever since the infamous Mean Girls scene in which it is said that “Halloween is the only night a year that a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it”, but nothing else I had seen had ever really hammered home the societal sexualisation experienced by young women, as expressed through Halloween costumes, before. And it was at that moment that it hit me that, from puberty onwards, I had lost Halloween. No more soot-coated faces or ghost stories or late night sleepovers where I ruined everyone’s fun by threatening to tell on them if they turned on the TV to watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre. No more pumpkin carving or apple bobbing or hastily abandoned Ouija boards. It had all of it, all of it, become about sex.

From the age of about three or four, my Halloween costumes were usually either your workaday sheet ghost, with holes for eyes, or your classic fairytale witch, complete with warty nose and broomstick. The gendering of children’s Halloween costumes wasn’t really an issue: the boys would dress as witches too, and the girls would happily channel male vampires, complete with widow’s peaks. It was the scarier the better, and by the age of ten or eleven, I had graduated to ghouls and serial killers (Scream was big at the time and I had a knock-off mask from the cornershop). But, around my early teens, something strange yet predictable started to happen. Suddenly, the girls weren’t playing Dracula, we were playing the brides of Dracula. We weren’t the evil Satan, but Satan’s sluttish consorts in stockings and suspenders, or sexy Witches or sexy Cats and sometimes even a sexy-something-that-isn’t-even-that-scary (“duh, I’m a mouse”). No longer could we be serial killers, but the serial killers’ blood-soaked victims, in fishnets and short skirts, and the only bobbing we aspired to do was on some guy from the club’s naked crotch after several tequila slammers. And with that shift from scary to sexy, all that excitement, that innocent, spooky joy that Halloween had meant for us dissolved faster than the Junior Disprols our mothers had dispensed to us after too many trick-or-treat gummy bears. Now, when I look back on the “sexy costume” years from the other side of a feminist epiphany, all I feel is sadness. Not because I believe in “slut-shaming” or think that women shouldn’t wear what they want whenever they want, but because the pressure to be sexy to men was so intense that we lost all sense of the fun, or the creative. In attempting to appear sexually adventurous, we became as unadventurous as Sally’s parents. Do not pass here, here be scary witches.

But after years of raunchy takes on traditional costumes, it seems like things might be changing. The first year that I started running feminist blog The Vagenda, my costume of choice was a full dinosaur suit. And I went out and danced harder that I’d danced for many Halloween moons, liberated but sweaty in the knowledge that nobody could see, nor cared, about the shape of my body beneath all those layers of padding and fleece. No one was after my tail, because there was an actual tail in the way. It was the best Halloween I had had in years.

Then, last year, I was a spider. We went to Passing Clouds in Dalston, and around me were all these incredible creative, otherworldly costumes, some of which may have looked extremely cumbersome from a dancing perspective but which were, nonetheless, works of art. You just haven’t had fun until you’ve danced to Gypsy swing with a load of people in plague masks. And this year, people’s costume plans sound even better: Madam Vastra from Doctor Who, the Incredible Hulk, the dancer from The Red Shoes, a Tory-Ukip Coalition, Russell Brand. And, thanks perhaps to an enduring fascination with zombies, it seems there’ll be more than enough scary too. It’s hard to express in words how happy this makes me. I don’t know if it’s because of a sense of competitiveness brought on by the internet, with people wanting to see whose costume can “go viral” the quickest, or if it’s this new wave of feminism. It might just be that my generation are growing up and rediscovering the fun of not worrying too much about validation from men, but either way, Halloween is starting to feel like a festival again, and it’s about time. This week, I’m making amputated finger sandwiches for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.