Should Australians Celebrate Halloween?

Children in halloween costumes

When I first came to Australia last spring, I was quite disappointed to learn that nobody here celebrates Halloween. What kid wouldn’t want to choose a classic costume (I was a pumpkin for four years), decorate their house with cobwebs and pumpkins, and go from door-to-door yelling at old people to give them candy?

Halloween seems like such a fun, harmless holiday, but admittedly, there are some ugly truths beneath the surface. For me, the holiday gained new meanings as years passed.

As a kid it was all about the candy. At the end of trick or treating, my favourite tradition was when my brother and I would dump all of our candy onto the floor and trade with each other till we had all our favourites (whilst inevitably eating half of it in the process).

By the time Middle School rolled around it was more about passing out candy to the younger kids, playing pranks and scaring the wits out of each other – though I personally didn’t engage in any tricks, only treats. One of my favourite Halloween memories is the haunted corn maze. My friends and I once stood in line for two hours to enter, only to experience just two minutes of horror because one of my friends fainted and the other peed herself at the sight of clowns with chainsaws.

By high school, now that Halloween parties were in the mix, dressing up was suddenly cool again – though the costumes had suddenly become a bit more provocative.

By university, Halloween had become a three-week-long event. Fraternities and friends would throw parties with Halloween themes the week before, the week of, and the week after the hallowed October 31st date. Boys and girls would scuttle home the mornings after still decked out in their costumes. One year I was Tinkerbell and I proudly rocked my fairy wings the 2km back to my dorm.

Inarguably, some of my favourite memories come from preparing for and celebrating Halloween, however, I’m far from being an advocate for the holiday to expand its reaches to Australia. In addition to those who have religious qualms about Halloween, there are serious health and social concerns.

According to the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare, 63% of adults and 25% of children in Australia are overweight or obese, but some expect the latter number to rise to 65% by 2020. Promoting a holiday that glorifies the mass consumption of sugar, chocolate and other unhealthy snacks shouldn’t be on the agenda. In 2008 alone, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that $58 billion was spent on health care for obese people.

Furthermore, Halloween night is rife with dangerous alcohol consumption and drunk driving accidents. The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that on Halloween night in 2011, 38% of fatalities were because of drunk driving, and The Columbus Dispatch reported that pedestrians were 35% more likely to be hit by a car.

Picking out a costume is one of the best (and most stressful) parts of Halloween, but it can also present serious social issues. Cultural appropriation is damaging, and is a common occurrence on Halloween when you see political correctness slip away as people create loopholes for unjustified behaviour. I’ve seen people dress as “Mexicans”, “geisha girls”, “gangsters”, and “Native Americans”, and I put all of these in parenthesis because they incorrectly stereotype people and communities.

On Halloween what you wear as a costume, someone else sees as an identity. You may see it as a joke, but they may see it as humiliating, degrading, a loss of control of their identity, or even as an inaccurate representation of their culture.

During the semester I spent living in a college on campus here in Australia, I was saddened to see a list go around for Girls’ Night that had some people dressing as “Mexicans”. Those who showed up wore sombreros, fake moustaches and ponchos. Needless to say this is not an accurate representation of Mexican culture, and it is a damaging stereotype that people are constantly confronted with.

While some may feel like they can wear someone’s culture for an evening, others feel circumscribed to wear a costume that others have already given them, or may simply have no role models to emulate. One of my friends has told me that when she would choose costumes, she felt that because she was Chinese her only options were Mulan or Cho Chang. My friend felt marginalised and excluded because she saw so few people in the media that she could model her costume on.

Social lines that dictate what a person can or cannot dress as can be harmful to children trying to build an identity for themselves. Social constructs that make girls dress like princesses and boys dress like superheroes can be very harmful in the long run.

So, no, I don’t think Australia should celebrate Halloween. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of costumes that aren’t offensive, and it’s more than possible to have a fun night while avoiding alcohol and chocolate, but many people won’t make the right choices.

Photo credit: Huffington Post