Amid the pandemic, America’s Halloween will be subdued

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THE FIRST Halloween is a rite of passage for newcomers to America. Knowing that, I was nonetheless amazed, a few weeks after moving to a neighbourhood in the suburbs of Washington, DC, by the seriousness with which people set about transforming their homes into haunted houses. Within days there was death everywhere. Full-sized skeletons lounged nonchalantly on verandahs. Gurning, blood-splattered zombies crawled out of flower beds. Corpses, with partially severed heads, swung from trees. Lawns were scattered with skulls; ghostly hands reached out from the grass.

This was clearly enchanting, especially for children. Though we balked at the cost at first—$100 buys you only half a dozen polystyrene gravestones and a barking dog skeleton—a few years on, from early October our front lawn looks like a still from the “Thriller” video.

It is hard to be standoffish about American Halloween for long. The escapist thrill of the supernatural, combined with partying in costume and eating a lot of chocolate, makes it the most carefree festival of the holiday season that it kicks off. In a country where people tend to work long hours and take too few days off, it operates as a relief valve.

In the era of covid-19 such distractions are especially alluring. Since March, when schools first switched to online learning, children in and around Washington have been cooped up at home with their parents (if their parents are lucky enough to be able to work remotely). Deprived of friends and the rituals of sporting events and birthday parties, they have seized on Halloween with even more alacrity than usual. This year, “ghosting”, the tradition of dropping sweets on friends’ doorsteps before ringing the bell and running away, started weeks earlier than usual and seems to happen most evenings. Some kind souls have offered frazzled parents solace by “boozing”: the same thing, but with bottles of wine.

But many adults are not in the mood for Halloween this year. That is not surprising. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has classified trick-or-treating, the main event, as “high-risk” and warned against it. Though going from door-to-door, soliciting sweets, is mostly an outdoor activity, the CDC says that communal cauldrons of sweets could spread the coronavirus. Trick-or-treating can also mean crowds. Every American child knows the best houses to visit on October 31st, so that even if some roads are empty others become heavily congested. In my neighbourhood, on the edge of the capital, two leafy streets of handsome old houses are a magnet for trick-or-treaters from northern Washington and its suburbs, thanks to the generosity of the residents. It is as if it is written into their contract of home ownership that they must, one night a year, stock up on vast amounts of candy and transform their houses into Halloween film sets and themselves into witches, monsters and ghouls.

This is usually a source of considerable local pride: rumour has it the trick-or-treaters have included the offspring of presidents. But this year some householders have posted signs regretfully directing trick-or-treaters to come back in 2021; many have left their house façades bare of tat. Infection with the coronavirus is not their only fear. One neighbour said it seemed insensitive to celebrate death amid a deadly pandemic (though the fact that people are always dying may be part of Halloween’s cathartic appeal). Others, in what is an overwhelmingly Democratic area, are simply too distracted by the solemnity of the looming election to dress up either themselves or their houses, though some have combined the messaging of both. “Elections are scary” reads one large sign stuck on the wall of a house, with a picture of a knife dripping with blood. “Please vote”.

This sombre Halloween comes as a disappointment to those who had planned their presidential-election themed get-ups. Costumes in and around the capital are often political. One year I met a woman carrying an oar and wearing wellies: she was Roe v Wade, the controversial Supreme Court ruling on abortion. (Row a boat or wade in boots, she explained.) In 2020, alongside the inevitable plans to party as Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka, at least one couple I know hoped to dress as the ill-famed husband and wife who were charged after pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in St Louis, Missouri, in June. (Their stripy top and pink shirt would have been an easy his-and-her combination to pull off.) One costume manufacturer is flogging a fly atop a white wig, thus memorialising the one that landed on Mike Pence’s head during the vice-presidential debate this month.

With trick-or-treating curtailed, people are being creative. In Washington, where many houses have steps leading up to the door, some have built candy chutes: PVC piping, taped to the railings and wrapped in shiny paper for whizzing candy down to passersby from a safe distance. In the suburbs, there are plans for teenagers to lob bags of sweets out of cars to children standing outside their houses. Some traditions have persisted, with extra precautions: the Congressional Cemetery, a burial ground on Capitol Hill, held its usual Halloween twilight tours several evenings during October, but with a limit on numbers to allow for social distancing.

Not all Americans will be so careful. In DC and its suburbs, there is enormous reverence for science and the opinion of experts: some of my neighbours mask up to put the bins out. But only a few miles into Maryland or Virginia, signs urging mask-wearing are routinely flouted. Some Americans are railing against local government orders to stay home on the evening of October 31st. That has led to debates about whether a ban on trick-or-treating violates the constitution. Nothing in America, it seems, is untouched by political polarisation.

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