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28 October 2014

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.

By Rhiannon Cosslett

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.

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“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.