How would you expect Halloween to be celebrated in the country where the Gothic horror movement was born?
You might, I suspect, imagine that a land where centuries of witchcraft and superstition were channeled into fiction ranging from Dracula to Harry Potter would very much enjoy a celebration of the ghoulish and macabre.
Yet any foreigner who found themselves in the UK last Saturday might have been surprised to discover that Britain is decidedly ambiguous about celebrating Halloween (or Hallowe’en, as I still tend to pedantically spell it). And I can’t help feeling that this reveals something about Britain’s discomfort with an important part of its own heritage.
When I was a child in the 1970s and early 1980s, Britain did almost nothing to mark Halloween. Kids like me, who loved spooky stories and yearned to watch horror movies, knew that the US celebrated the festival in style. We badly wanted to import trick-or-treating, fancy dress and all the rest of it.
Eventually, those US traditions did start to catch on, but their arrival was accompanied by media scare stories about the undesirability of such apparently obnoxious American customs. Inevitably, some rougher examples of British youth seemed determined to play up to such fears by trick-or-treating in much more menacing ways than the occasion demanded.
These days, Halloween is acknowledged, but with a certain sense of unease. Supermarkets sell the paraphernalia and some children go trick-or-treating – but the younger ones tend to have a parent hovering behind them, as much to reassure householders as to ensure the children’s safety. By the way, my Irish pal John White has used the cultural differences over Halloween as subject matter for the latest installment of his excellent 1970s-set web comic Between*Wars. Do pay it a visit.
I think the British ambiguity about celebrating Halloween (a festival which we originally exported to America, after all) has a lot in common with the country’s discomfort with the horror genre which it did so much to create.
Britain may have spawned Frankenstein, Dracula (by an Irishman in the UK) and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but for a long time it seemed embarrassed that it had.
When those stories became the foundation of Hollywood horror, you might have expected Britain’s film industry to jump on the bandwagon. But the UK barely produced any horror movies before World War Two, even while English director James Whale was defining the early look of the genre in the States and peopling his films with British stars such as Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Claude Rains and Ernest Thesiger.
In fact, Britain was so troubled by the popularity of Hollywood horrors that its censors introduced a new rating, ‘H’ for horror. And from 1942-45, ‘H’ certificate films were banned; scary stories could, apparently, fatally undermine the war effort.
In the 1950s, the arrival of the Hammer horror films sent British critics and opinion-formers into a moral panic. Here were unashamedly Gothic tales told in lurid colour. They were the heirs to a literary tradition which Britain was still determined not to venerate. At least one national critic reacted to the first Hammer horror, The Curse of Frankenstein, by calling for it to be banned. And in a 1958 article for Sight and Sound, Derek Hill took aim at the whole genre, writing: “Only a sick society could bear the hoardings, let alone see the films.”
While Britain upset itself about horror and monster movies, American audiences seemed to be lapping them up, in movie houses, drive-ins and on TV. And whereas the law forbade British cinemas from letting children in to see horror movies, things were different in the States. Vincent Price once noted that in Britain, horror films were rated ‘X’ for adults only, whereas in the US, they were released for school vacations.
Oddly enough, even Hammer Films did not quite get this difference. As the 1970s dawned, the studio attempted to spice up its products by adding more sex – thus piquing the interest of its grown-up domestic audience, but narrowing the films’ appeal in the US.
Things have moved on since the days of the Hammer horrors, of course. Today, plenty of people do acknowledge the importance of the Gothic tradition in British culture. And yet a reluctance to embrace the weird and the spooky persists. I work in Bournemouth, which is the burial place of Mary Shelley and the place where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but surprisingly little has been done to capitalise on these associations.
Why is Britain so ill at ease with such things? When it comes to tales of witchcraft and the supernatural, it may be to do with the lingering influence of the church – but then, America is a much more churchgoing country than the UK, and it has few such qualms.
Perhaps more relevant is the snobbery, particularly among critics, about any kind of entertainment that makes us feel emotion very strongly – and what emotion could be more intense than fear?
What’s more, the UK is a resolutely conservative country, very quick to spot evidence that society is going to the dogs. And then there is the British critical obsession with ‘realism’ (whatever that term means), which has traditionally meant deriding all kinds of art that are obviously bold and imaginative.
All these prejudices have made us reluctant to celebrate our anything scary. And when you combine them with the notorious British hesitancy about having fun in public, you might see why Halloween last weekend was such an awkward affair.