In many ways, Halloween is the most American of holidays: secular, irreverent, and unashamedly consumerist. And as with many American cultural products, it has become a wildly successful export. Starting in the 1970s, American baby boomers teaching English abroad began exposing people around the world—many of whom already had autumn harvest traditions of their own—to pirate costumes, candy corn, and plastic pumpkins. Today the pitch is often more direct, as rapidly expanding global brands such as Disney and McDonald’s foment universal Halloween longing with movie tie-ins and Happy Meal toys. The requisite Halloween episode of every American sitcom—as potent a Westernizer as jeans or Coca-Cola—has also helped spread the holiday by providing how-to manuals for trick-or-treating and dressing up. Today, countries from Japan to Ukraine have embraced American Halloween and its customs.
But even jack-o’-lanterns can sow discontent. In her new book, “Trick or Treat? A History of Halloween,” author and Halloween enthusiast Lisa Morton catalogs the strange and sometimes violent ways people the world over have reacted to our spookiest export. She spoke to Ideas from the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood, where she works as a bookseller.
IDEAS: Halloween seems to have caught on across Western Europe, but not France. Why?
MORTON: Halloween seemed like it was going to catch on for a couple years there, but it was actually declared dead by the major French newspapers [in 2006].
They’re kind of anti-American there...[and] Catholicism is still very popular in France. They are very into celebrating All Saints Day...and have always stuck to the tradition of going to cemeteries on November 1st and decorating and cleaning the graves. They didn’t want to give that up.
IDEAS: You note that Eastern European countries haven’t generally gotten into Halloween. Is that also due to religion?
MORTON: Yes, I think so. In Russia, especially, [this conflict] is very interesting because a lot of young Russians consider Halloween this festival [as an opportunity] for celebrating their own creativity. They really love dressing up. They get very into things like body painting and complicated makeup—some of the things they do are just glorious to look at.
But on the other hand, you have the Russian Orthodox Church saying, “No, no, no, it’s not our tradition.” Some places have tried to [bring this together] by saying, “Well, go ahead and dress as a Russian Orthodox character on the 31st.” It doesn’t work out that way.
In some of the other Eastern European areas like Ukraine, they found that they love to celebrate it. [They stage] huge performances of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—they’ll have parades, and they’ll suddenly have a flash mob doing the “Thriller” dance.
But they don’t like pumpkins; [giving someone] a pumpkin is a traditional way of saying “I’m not interested in you.”
IDEAS: What about Muslim countries?
MORTON: It’s not celebrated in any of the countries where Islam is the main religion, but there was an interesting WikiLeaks document that came to light within the last year that said that [a group of wealthy citizens] had broken the taboos with a secret Halloween party in Saudi Arabia, complete with alcohol and costumes.
IDEAS: You mention the South African head of the Christian Action Network protested Halloween by shooting trick-or-treaters with a paintball gun. Have there been more violent responses?
MORTON: Not really, but there have been a lot of op-ed pieces. There haven’t been organized protests, but I have heard of protests where people have wanted to celebrate Halloween. There was a group of 17 who protested in Australia a few years ago, but it seemed like it was a marketing stunt, [since] the guy who was in charge of it owned a costume company.
South Africa is the only place in the Southern hemisphere where Halloween is really catching on. They have a lot of sporting events that have made it more popular there. They have motocross and rave celebrations, and they’re embracing it as a youth culture thing.
IDEAS: England and mainland China both have longstanding autumn traditions, and yet both countries seem are enthusiastic about Halloween.
MORTON: In Britain, the major public holiday used to be Guy Fawkes Day...that was celebrated on November 5th with things like bonfires and fireworks....I think that made Halloween seem preferable. The idea of having pumpkins and costumes and parties seemed much more appealing than burning down your neighborhood.
In mainland China, one of the reasons Halloween is catching on with young people was because they far prefer it to their own Hungry Ghost festival...[during which] their dead ancestors return for three days, and so they set out plates of food and they burn paper money so they can take that back to the afterworld with them. The Hungry Ghost festival is actually really scary—you can see why orange pumpkins and green witches would be much more entertaining than that.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville.