Up until the 1980s, Halloween in Britain was a homemade affair. Costumes were generally limited to a witch or a black cat for a girl, a ghost or a vampire for a boy. I used to paint a sheet of newspaper and a ring of cardboard black, then tape them together into a cone with a brim. I’d sling a black jumper of my father’s across my shoulders for a cape, borrow the garden broom and, hey presto, I was a witch. Boys occasionally got into trouble for cutting eye holes into perfectly good sheets.
We’d hollow out rock hard swedes with dangerously sharp kitchen knives, nibbling on raw chunks from their interiors, then give them a scary face and pierce two holes for string to hang them up or carry them round with us. When we lit the stump of a candle inside them, the sweet smell of singeing swede was simply splendiferous. We were aware of Americans doing all this with pumpkins as most of us had seen Charlie Brown and friends doing ‘Trick or Treat’ on the Peanuts Halloween special but our neighbourhood was not yet ready for such cosmopolitan customs.
Someone’s garage would inevitably be crudely decorated with roughly cut out bat shapes hanging from lengths of twine and the swede lanterns would be set out on the steps of a ladder. We’d make shadows on the wall with candle light, our hands contorted into arthritic claws, then blow out the candles and play Murder in the Dark, a frenzied nocturnal version of tag. When the screaming became too much, a parent would snap on the fluorescent light and tell us to ‘Calm down!’ so we’d bob for apples instead.
Later, if there was to be a sleepover, there was usually one of the old Hammer Horror films on BBC2, which we were allowed to watch because parents tended to regard them as ‘soft’ horror. We actually found the surfeit of fake blood terrifying and the eroticism baffled us. As soon as we saw a low-cut nightdress or blouse, we knew the wearer was doomed to be subjected to a Dracula’s bite. We shared a suspicion that his victims were not dressed like that solely for him to avoid getting fabric between his teeth. Christopher Lee played Dracula with perfect English Received Pronunciation, not a trace of Transylvanian, which reassured his victims by making them believe they were in the hands of a newsreader.
Two decades later, I wanted to carry on the tradition of homemade Halloweens with my own children, even though it was no longer the norm. They’d put together a costume from things in their amply stocked dressing-up box and paint their faces accordingly. I welcomed my daughter’s abstract idea of ‘A Dancing Pumpkin’ one year because she wanted to make use of a rather fetching purple tutu. My son opted for more concrete personae, such as Batman, which involved wearing black briefs over long johns.
Our Halloweens usually took a week to organise because we always held a party. Pumpkins were the norm in Europe by this time and carving them was a breeze after the swedes. Neither seeds nor flesh were wasted, with the former roasted and the latter shredded and baked into ghoulishly decorated cupcakes. We’d prepare all kinds of other intricately constructed Halloween-themed dainties, ready for the horde of children who’d be coming to the party. I’d advanced somewhat from bats on twine and one year created a walk-through ruin out of cardboard painted with grey acrylic mixed with sand and festooned with branches of ivy I’d collected.
Apple bobbing was still on the itinerary but now we also had doughnuts on strings, pin the tail on the demon and Wink Murder, a considerably more controlled version of Murder in the Dark. We also had a themed playlist, including the likes of The Monster Mash by the Crypt Kicker Five, to which the children danced for musical statues, striking monstrous poses when the music was paused. Needless to say, our Halloween parties were one of the highlights of the year for those children and have lived on in their memories.
A couple of months after I started working at a British curriculum school in Cairo, I had the idea of doing something for Halloween to give the students a break from relentless academia. Truth be told, it was something for me too because my own children were now teenagers and no longer much interested in Halloween. The English headmaster was so keen that he decided it should be a ‘whole school event’, which was to take place in the school’s sunny courtyard.
Other international teachers volunteered to create several Halloween-themed activities such as guessing the object in a bucket full of slime, relay races involving rubber spiders, assembling puzzles of skeletons and the like. Each class was also tasked with making a tray of themed food so there could be a whole school feast before the fun and games began.
On the day before the event, my middle school English literature class was going to carve a load of pumpkins to decorate the venue. That morning, a group of cheerful Egyptian cleaners carried two dozen watermelons into my classroom. I managed to communicate the misunderstanding but they told me, still smiling, that they would never be able to find replacement pumpkins by tomorrow. My class and I duly rolled up our sleeves and got on with the project. The carving was even easier than pumpkins but our arms and the floor became horribly sticky. Our green jack o'lanterns dotted around the courtyard were somewhat avant-garde, but would do.
The following day, the school minibuses disgorged a couple of hundred pupils aged from four to fourteen, all in their shop-bought Halloween costumes. The Egyptian members of staff smiled anxiously at their charges: vampires struggling with their plastic fangs, witches in polyester hats and cloaks dusted with glitter, padded pumpkin suits with green stem tights. In spite of my letter praising the creative opportunities offered by a homemade outfit, nobody had made one. The task of awarding first prize for most imaginative costume was going to prove challenging for the headmaster.
At mid-morning break, the festivities commenced with the Halloween feast: sausage rolls resembling bloody fingers, doughnuts decorated as screaming vampire faces, pizzas with orange cheese made to look like jack o'lanterns, ghost-shaped shortbreads, cupcakes with chocolate icing and a biscuit gravestone. A feast fit for ten score sugar-addicted children and their teachers.
Once the treat tables had been ravaged, the activities were set to begin. In the role of supervising the event, I immediately noticed several areas were unmanned and queues of agitated children were forming. I dashed into the staffroom to find all of my Egyptian colleagues sitting drinking coffee, whereupon I politely asked them to please make haste to their posts.
‘We can’t, it’s against our religion,’ I was told by the apologetic ICT teacher, who’d been born in Manchester but was dual nationality. He appeared to have been chosen as the spokesperson.
‘Crikey, you might’ve told me beforehand!’ I objected feebly, prior to mentioning that they’d just happily helped scoff the Halloween treats.
‘Oh, we can eat those things,’ the ICT teacher explained, ‘but taking part in the activities is going too far; it’s a celebration of evil spirits and idolatry, known in Arabic as shirk.’
‘Shirk?’ I mused. ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head there’.
‘Absolutely haram,’ he added. ‘Strictly forbidden.’
I tried pleading with them further but once religion had been invoked, I knew all remonstration was futile. Scuttling back to the courtyard, I quickly recruited several of my more responsible students to manage the unsupervised activities. It had all worked out but it was like spinning half a dozen plates on sticks at the same time. I promised myself that this would be the last Halloween party I’d ever organise and I’m pleased to say, it’s a promise I’ve kept.
When it came to deciding the best costume, the poor headmaster looked into the crowd of expectant children before him. Bemused, he tried hard to pick one out, looking from one identical Made-in-China Halloween costume to the next. As he stood there stumped, I happened to notice a small boy emerging from the toilets entirely wrapped in toilet paper. He’d obviously forgotten to tell his parents to buy him a costume and was improvising. I caught the head’s eye and nodded emphatically towards the boy.
‘And the winner is...’ the headmaster announced, ‘the Egyptian mummy!’
In a former life, Auriel Roe was a teacher of art, drama and literature in secondary school. Now she is a full time writer and artist. Her debut novel A Blindefellows Chronicle was #1 in the humour genre in Amazon US, UK and Canada. It is now available in Spanish and Italian translation as well as being an audiobook. Her memoir focusing mainly on adolescence and her grandmothers, A Young Lady's Miscellany is currently being prepared for publication. Beta readers have started reviewing it on Goodreads. You can see pictures of characters from the memoir on this facebook site here