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Scott Begbie: Haunted by memories of how Halloween used to be

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Halloween is almost upon us… and the truly scary thing is how it has changed over the years.

These days it’s all about kids rocking up at someone’s door dressed as a superhero or a Disney princess and mumbling “trick or treat” before holding out a bucket for sweeties (in special Halloween size bags and packaging) to be dumped in.

Ditto for grown ups, but without the going door to door for sweets, more like going from pub to pub for drinks.

No, no, no. That’s not how Halloween is supposed to work. Where’s the graft? Where’s the effort? Where’s the guising?

Halloween in Lerwick in 1986.

When I was younger, Halloween was very much a home-grown affair. There was none of this wandering into your local supermarket to pick up an off-the-shelf Harry Potter outfit.

If you wanted to dress up, you had to get on and do it for yourself. Which is why the Invisible Man was so popular. You just needed some crepe bandages and a pair of dark glasses. Slightly more imaginative than the white sheet with holes cut out for eyes, while you wandered around going “boo”.

‘The Invisible Man’.

Although one year I did make a Frankenstein head out of cardboard and jerry-rigged bolts in my neck with tinfoil and my sister’s hairband.

Not quite as hard core as one friend. She decided to go as a scarecrow, which involved painting her face green (yeah, I don’t know why either). Anyway, went down a treat on October 31 until she realised the paint wasn’t going to come off easily and spent a rather uncomfortable couple of days at school.

Halloween face painting in 1988.

Dressing up was just the start of the process. When I was younger, you had to work for your penny or apple or bag of nuts. On the subject of which, why did people hand out those really hard shelled ones that needed a hammer and a strong arm to open for a withered up tasteless pith in the middle. What was so wrong with monkey nuts?

Anyway, back to earning them in the first place. When you fetched up at someone’s door you had to have a “piece” to do. A poem, or a song, or a dance or a joke. And you were judged accordingly. The harder you had worked on it, the more goodies in your bag or coin in your pocket.

Children trick or treating at Halloween

I usually went with a couple of knock-knock jokes (those who know me will attest little has changed). But there was one kid in our class who went out in his dress kilt outfit (jabeau, the lot) and worked his way through Andy Stewart’s repertoire, with a bit of Highland Dancing thrown in. Nobody liked him. Just saying.

Also, you needed to have a lantern about your person. Kids today have it easy with this pumpkin malarkey (easier yet if they get the plastic ones with an electric bulb inside).

Children of the 60s (and generations before) had to face the trials and terrors of scooping out the innards of a turnip. Rock hard these were always resistant to even the sharpest blade. There are still people today with a scar or two on their hand from where a knife skited off a neep.

 Jennifer Moir with her turnip lantern in 1988.

The only time turnips decided to yield was when you got down to the fine detail of the holes for eyes, triangular nose and zig-zag mouth. That’s when one slip would slice out huge chunks from the face and have you start afresh on another lump or vegetable with all the qualities of fine marble.

For the record, you can tell people from that era because they know what the smell of scorched turnip is like, courtesy of the candle inside.

Edzell’s Cub Scouts with their neep lanters in 1971.

If children weren’t roaming the streets at Halloween, they were inside having parties with all the “fun” of the season.

Dookin’ for apples anyone? Let’s fill a basin with apples and have a pile of kids try to pull them out with just their teeth. You needed to be first in there, otherwise you had a basin that was half water, half other folks’ saliva – with a soupcon of snot – and the chance of pulling out an apple that already had someone else’s teeth marks in it.

Halloween at Cornhill Youth Club in 1978.

That was only when we went to other people’s houses. In ours’ we did it by leaning over the back of a chair with a fork in our teeth, then dropping it into apples bobbing to see if we could spear one. I don’t know if this was an Edinburgh tradition, or my mum’s way of keeping us out of the hospital with some saliva born infection and the living room carpet dry.

I was aware of another Halloween game that involved hanging scones covered in treacle from a string, then trying to eat them without using your hands. But then again, the only place I ever saw that was in The Broons. Was it a thing?

Beverley Mennie and Louise Clark from Westhill in 1983.

And does anyone else remember that game when you sat in the dark and someone intoned about finding a body… “and these were his fingers” as they pass around sausages, “these were his guts” … as your hand is put in bowl of cold spaghetti. I once got into trouble for eating the eyes. But I like grapes.

Of course, as I got older my interest in guising waned. I think my last go at it was when me and a mate just pulled up the hoods of our parkas to look like eskimos and chapped at a house. Our “penny for the guisers” was met with a quick look up and down, a harsh “no” and a slammed door.

And that was the end of that.

These days, like so many things, Halloween has been hijacked, Americanised, sanitised and monetised.

But when I was younger, there was still genuine air of mystery and the supernatural about All Hallow’s Eve.

It was close to its origins of being the night when the veil between this world and the next was thinner. Ghost stories told or read had a frisson or reality about them.

Nowadays, Halloween stories are all about upping the body count in an US frat house while wearing a mask and stripey jumper in Halloween Nightmare on Elm Street XIII.

Still, in the days of Covid and social distancing I think I might spend this Saturday curled up on the couch reading The Monkey’s Paw. And eating grapes.