Halloween hysteria? It's just the product of our fearful and conformist modern times
Why get so hung up over fright night, says Fionola Meredith. A little mild anarchy is just harmless fun
Calm down, it's only Halloween. The way some people are reacting, you would think a zombie apocalypse was imminent.
Killer clowns supposedly on the rampage, tales of vicious trick-or-treaters, gruesome costumes at the supermarket check-out scaring the daylights out of youngsters, claims of pets terrorised to death by fireworks: they all fuel the growing sense of seasonal fear and outrage.
Of course, we have already witnessed the now-traditional spectacle of a retailer offering a tasteless Halloween costume for sale and then being forced to withdraw it following widespread condemnation. This year, it was the topical 'bound and gagged Kim Kardashian' look, following the Paris jewellery heist, which came complete with bathrobe, ropes and fake diamond sparkler. Damn, that's my Halloween outfit wrecked. I'll have to fall back on the sexy Osama Bin Laden get-up.
In the past, we have had the zombie Jimmy Savile costume - lurid blue shell-suit, pink glasses, chunky medallion, outsize fake cigar and a bottle of blood - which was offered for sale by Amazon then withdrawn after numerous complaints. Tesco and Asda were also forced to grovel after presenting their own dodgy costumes: a Guantanamo-style jumpsuit emblazoned with the words 'Psycho Ward' - accessorised with matching jaw restraint - in the case of Tesco, while Asda offered a blood-splattered straitjacket and a plastic machete. It all ended - inevitably enough - with the two supermarkets erasing the offending items from their websites, providing a round of fulsome apologies, and making out a couple of fat cheques to the mental health charity Mind, by way of atonement.
This year, in a new move, the University of Florida is offering counselling to students who have suffered Halloween-related trauma. Since the USA is the prime global exporter of cultural hysteria, this is not surprising. But it's not horror or the occult to which the university objects. That's old-school stuff, the kind we're very familiar with here in Northern Ireland: it used to be that barely a Halloween would go by without some sort of Satanic panic, and pastors or priests decrying Harry Potter as a gateway to evil.
Instead, modern moral outrage is inspired by outfits which do not conform to approved standards of political correctness. This is the new perceived danger. "Some Halloween costumes reinforce stereotypes of particular races, genders, cultures, or religions," announced the university. "Regardless of intent, these costumes can perpetuate negative stereotypes, causing harm and offense to groups of people". Cultural appropriation - not whooping it up with the ouija board - is the soul-corrupting threat of our times.
Which is why Asda has landed itself in a fresh controversy on social media over its latest Halloween gear. Trigger warning: serious psychological disturbance alert. You won't believe this, I know, but Asda is actually offering a Mexican 'Day of the Dead' outfit - as a Halloween costume. Horrifying, right? The costume is "appropriative and disrespectful," complained one online critic. "It makes me mad that Asda thinks Halloween and Dia de los Muertos is the same holiday," raged another.
I'll admit that I'm not the biggest fan of the contemporary Halloween experience. I miss the days of my childhood: the smoky turnip lantern, the home-made tarts with rings or coins, ducking for apples by firelight, and of course the indoor fireworks set, which was all we had for pyrotechnical thrills since real fireworks were banned during the Troubles. My heart sinks a little in late September, when I see cafes and shops start plastering on the yellow and black crime-scene tape and putting up the plastic ghouls.
But let's not get too hung-up over Halloween. Just as there's no need to panic that Harry Potter will lead our little darlings into a vortex of sin, we don't need to agonise over 'harmfully offensive' costumes either.
So what if they are tasteless and tacky? Anyone who is distraught because they encounter someone dressed up as a zombie Saddam Hussein doesn't require counselling for trauma. All that's required is a swift reality check. And as for the 'killer clown' phenomenon, that's 99 parts urban legend to one part fact. The numbers of actual attacks by people dressed as clowns is tiny, but the hysteria generated by the rumours is gigantic.
The truth is that Halloween has long been a night of mischief and transgression, when traditional roles and codes of behaviour are cast aside, and a mild form of anarchy rules. It's a way of engaging with the darker side of human nature, exploring forbidden fascinations. But it's essentially harmless.
The only really scary thing about this time of year is the number of people willing to take offence.