OK, so we all know Hallowe’en is bigger and better in America. The pumpkins are huge; everybody goes to parties; trick or treating, to hear people mutter disapprovingly in Britain, sums up the me-me-me consumerism and obesity of America in one neat’n’nasty custom.
We did consider some tactics for getting invited to a party despite knowing only a handful of people, two months into our time here. I suggested to M that at every social occasion in October we should talk casually about our amazing costumes, be drunk and outrageous and cool and inquire with a slightly sniffy air what people considered the best thing to do on Hallowe’en, as if we were weighing up a hundred rival invitations. Naturally, we didn’t manage to do any of this. Instead we went to a rather lame night of improv comedy performed by a monster troupe.
But we’ve been enjoying Hallowe’en nevertheless. (Is that apostrophe irritating you? I might have to abandon it.) M carved a pumpkin lantern last weekend, which I now learn is properly called a jack o’lantern, breaking my best knife in the process. He threw it out midweek because the whole apartment was smelling like rotten fish.
Most of all, though, I’ve been liking the way people around Evanston and north Chicago have been doing up their houses. I’m especially keen on the spider on a hammock below, and the tidiness-becomes-scariness of bags of dead leaves made to look like pumpkins.
I suppose these started with people leaving out a lantern to show they were happy to receive trick-or-treaters. Back in the 80s, I seem to remember people actually performing tricks. Teenagers might ring a bell and run away; they might push something nasty through a letterbox; they might steal a plant from a doorstep. The whole point was menacing people into giving you sweets, and there was a bit of an edge to the whole thing. By putting out a lantern, you were saying – never mind starting on the trick! I’ve got a whole bag of fun-size Mars Bars to give away!
Anyway, this is clearly no longer the case in Evanston, Illinois. Either the streets where children and teenagers live are so dangerous that the poor little loves are deprived of their seasonal fun and have to be specially entertained by earnest Northwestern students in Project Pumpkin; or they are escorted around by their parents in official Evanston trick-or-treating hours, which the city elders have decreed to be 4.30 to 7, as our kindly neighbour told us with a hint of scorn while offering us a Reese’s Cup. The police Halloween guidelines (pdf) make a good read: ‘do not allow your children to eat any candy without being checked by an adult first‘; check the sex offenders’ register before you knock on any doors; ‘no one should drive a vehicle while wearing a Halloween Mask of any type.’
It’s easy enough to get a pumpkin: the picture above was taken near Lincoln Square at 5.45pm on Halloween. But putting them out is perilous at this mad squirrel time of year, as you can see below. You can just make out the hungry squirrel in the picture on the left; in the one on the right, the lantern has already been nibbled.
Halloween costumes in America seem to have become slightly detached from scaring people. I mean, I thought the options were Frankenstein’s monster, ghost, skeleton, vampire, zombie. But the people we saw in the streets and on the El were wearing a much wider range, from Buzz Lightyear to black-clothed sailor to cross-but-buxom peasant. According to Wikipedia the most popular outfits this year were Lady Gaga, the BP oil slick, and Chilean miners, but the same article says (I paraphrase slightly) that the general Halloween rule is to dress like a whore. The Chicagoist’s suggestions for last-minute costumes themed around Chicago were largely incomprehensible to me, so maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t get a party invitation after all. I don’t think I’m very good at these things anyway – I once went to my sister’s Tube Station fancy dress party as Sloane Square in a Barbour jacket, Alice band and fake pearls, making everyone there assume I must be too awful to talk to.
Though we could have put on costumes to go about our normal business for the whole long weekend. The Farmer’s Market stallholders were dressed up on Saturday (on the left, the sign you can’t read is ‘goes well with fava beans’, a joke they were using on all their produce; on the right, you may wonder where the Scarecrow is – he was at a stall on the far side of the market).
Only a few, mainly Catholic, schools take a stand against the deluge of costumes by insisting that if children do dress up, they should come as saints. This produces a lot of headless John the Baptists – though this handy guidance note suggests less lurid options. Indeed, guidance is not limited to parents of schoolchildren. Northwestern students made such ‘bad choices’ last year that the dean of students has had to send out a much-derided email asking them to consider, among other things: if your costume is ‘meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?’ To be fair, they probably had to do something: the incident last year involved students blacking up.
Anyway, back to the home decor, which as befits my approaching middle age I now seem to find more interesting than clothes. I don’t want to give any prizes for tastefulness, like this:
Nor do I want to reward the truly tasteless: the hanged man I saw dangling from a porch on Dodge Avenue. So this is my winner of the Evanston home decoration informal competition. Awarded for attention to cobweb draping. Happy Halloween!