Halloween: Lost In (Cultural) Translation?

Published 31st October 2017
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Halloween is massive in the US, having been passed down from generation to generation. In 2012, Americans spent almost $8billion (almost £5billion) on Halloween. As an American, I grew up with that tradition of Halloween and all that it involves – trick-or-treating, candy, costumes, pumpkins, TV Specials, candy, scary stories, scary decorations and, well, candy. But when I first moved to the UK in 2000, I really struggled to find any kind of Halloween decorations, and trick-or-treaters were non-existent. So imagine my thrill as year after year, Halloween becomes a bigger (and more commercial) holiday here in the UK. This is mainly due, I believe, to Satellite TV and all the American channels for children such as Disney and Nickelodeon, which show all the Halloween ‘specials’ year on year.

But I am not as happy that although the language of Halloween has translated perfectly well across the pond – “Trick-or-Treat” – the culture of American Halloween has not translated nearly so well. This is because, after decades of annual trick-or-treating and celebrating, Halloween and all that goes with it is as ingrained in the American culture and tradition as the 4th of July. Everyone – young and old – simply ‘knows’ what to expect and what to do. But that ‘knowing’ simply isn’t translating across the pond, where Halloween is mainly being copied off of what children see on television and in movies, and not taught from parent to child.

For the first UK generation really trying to embrace the American-style Halloween (and all the merchandisers trying to profit from it), here are a few explanations of some of the activities you see:

Halloween is full of nostalgia. Since it has been celebrated for generations, Halloween has become a way to re-live our childhood. (probably why so many adults purchase costumes – trying to be a kid again) One of my favourite photographs of my mother is of her (age 8) dressed in a nurse costume in 1953, ready to go trick-or-treating. And another is of me in 1972 (age 3), dressed in a clown costume my mother made for me. And now I love dressing my son in costume and sharing all the traditions with him.

A child’s first Halloween is a BIG deal. The perfect cute costume, lots of pictures, and the first Trick-or-Treating (even though they can’t eat the candy, or will even remember any of it). I fondly remember carrying my 2 day old niece around as her 5 year old sister knocked on the doors. Yes, 2 days old; and being absolutely gutted when my just-turned-1 year old son fell asleep before I could take him out. Go ahead – Google Images: ‘baby’s first halloween’ and have a look.

Trick-or-Treating (going from door to door in costume, asking for candy) is for children up to about 12. That’s it. Teenagers will either be given a dirty look or flatly turned away.

You only go to doors that have the porch light on. Period.

You must be in full costume. Just a mask doesn’t cut it. You will be turned away and embarrassed (or given the nasty, stale, unpopular candy left-over from the previous year, which is what a friend of mine does – that’s his ‘Trick’ part of Trick or Treat!)

Jack-o-lanterns are essential, and have become an art form for many. Oh sure, the basic triangle eyes and jagged smiling mouth is always popular, but many are now featuring famous faces and logos, and even being sculpted. (Google Images: of Jack-o-lantern art)

Costumes can be anything – there are just as many Cinderellas and Angry Birds as there are Ghosts and Witches. This is mainly because, unlike here in the UK, where it is not unusual to see Snow White or Spiderman sitting in a Tesco trolley and fancy dress is available in stores year round, Halloween is the only time costumes are on sale in stores in the US, and the only day kids get to go around town in costume, pretending to be whoever they wish to be. (Costumes one of the key aspects of Halloween, aren’t cheap: parents spent around $1 billion on children’s costumes in 2012.)

That goes for adults, too! In 2012, 76 million adults dressed up, spending $1.2 billion on them. And pets! Yes, 15% of Americans also put a costume on their pets, spending $310 million in the process.

For the adults, Halloween has become second only to Christmas in sales of Home decorations and candy. One search for ‘Halloween’ on Pinterest will show you. Neighbours compete for the best costumed house – some with flashing lights synchronised to spooky music, animated life-size figures, and fog machines!

And of course there are all the month-long haunted houses, haunted hayrides and haunted Maize mazes – some for profit, others for charity.

So, will Halloween grow to become as big as it is in the US? Maybe.

Can the people of the UK copy what is done in America? Sure.

But will it be as much fun without all the tradition and history and nostalgia Halloween conjures for Americans every year? Probably not. As with translation of language, simply copying the like-for-like words isn’t enough – there has to be accurate translation of the meaning, too. In this case, of the culture, not just the activities.

What do you think? Can Halloween ever really translate across the pond? Or will it mutate, like the English language itself, into a different celebration?

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