The Soul Sucking Monster Killing off Our Halloween Guisers

by Scott Douglas

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Whatever happened to guising and tumshie lanterns? The lament of a Scottish PR agency owner at Hallowe’en

Not turnipsI was genuinely spooked over the past few days by a relentless procession of luminous skeletons, hacket-faced witches and rubbery giant spiders.

It wasn’t those dressing up box staples that put the frighteners on me though – it was the huge, lumbering and creepily single-minded monster that is Hallowe’en consumerism.

As a nation we seem to have become slightly unhinged for the October 31 gorefest, stumbling, zombie-like, into a nether world where it’s perfectly acceptable to face demands of money for menaces.


A version of this post first appeared in the Daily Record’s Edinburgh Now supplement in October 2013


It’s also a bit unnerving to witness the celebration mutating before our very eyes. Of course, Hallowe’en has always been evolving, from its birth in the pagan rituals of Celtic tribes, through its absorption during the Middle Ages into the Christian church.

What’s scary though is the unnaturally fast transformation from the almost naive Hallowe’en of my childhood to the manic and frenzied corporate grabfest of today.In 30 years or less it has warped from a one day dressing up event primarily for kids into an insatiable, money-driven beast, hulking greedily over a span of several weeks.

 Blood spatter

Scary witch with terrifying pumpkin cakeFor weeks ahead of the date, supermarkets dedicate increasing shelf space to gimmicky goods from skull-shaped ornaments to “horrible hurricane lamps” and from tableware decorated with blood spatter to skull and crossbones punch bowls.

They are also peddling costumes including pumpkin-themed baby-grows and a dizzying range of adult costumes. It’s all good news for our pubs and clubs, which have the chance to make a killing on themed nights, where punters are encouraged to dress up.

However, we’ve created a Frankenstein’s monster of an event. One that is still rooted in popular customs that endured for centuries, but that has been fused with a modern and rampant consumerism that threatens to snuff out that flicker of what used to be likeable.

With all of its pumpkin overtones and ‘Trick or Treat’ sentiments we’ve imported wholesale an American concept of Hallowe’en. The irony shouldn’t be lost to us that we are getting back a tainted version of the very celebration we gifted to the US in the late 18th century.

Scratch beneath the plasticky monster costume, peel off the latex fright mask and scrub away the artfully painted axe wounds and plague sores and what you’ll find is a celebration that is overwhelmingly Scottish in its history and traditions.

Huge numbers of the Scots and Irish who helped build modern America took with them the rituals which marked the passing into the long winter – including “guising” and “tumshie lanterns”.

Rare Old Times

A scary pumpkin lantern carved by staff at Scottish public relations agency Holyrood PRAs a boy growing up on one of Edinburgh’s sprawling sink estates, in the late 70s and early 80s guising was still one of the events of the year, along with hollowing out and carving a turnip to make a lantern.

This week I asked a couple of 20-something colleagues – one Scottish and one Irish – if they knew what guising was. They looked at me blankly and even went so far as to say it sounded “a bit sinister”.

My primary school aged daughter’s response was even more depressing: “It’s what you called Trick or Treat in the olden days,” was her guileless answer.

The guisers of my youth often spent weeks planning their costumes, but they had to be carefully stitched, sewn and painstakingly pieced together. No-one ever bought ready made, off the shelf outfits, as there were none. To earn an apple, an orange, a fistful of monkey nuts or maybe a sweetie when going door-to-door, those children literally had to sing for their supper.

Guisers were expected to give X-factor quality renditions of songs, to perform mini stand-up comedy routines, to recite carefully memorised poetry or to perform well choreographed dances.

In other words, it involved a lot of thought, planning and hard work. Carving a turnip was similarly challenging, often proving more effective at spoon bending than telly cutlery menace, Uri Geller.

I’ve eaten expensively-decorated, horror cupcakes and drank overpriced, ghoul-themed cocktails, so know there is still plenty of fun to be had for both adults and children in the modern celebration of Hallowe’en.

But I can’t help feel that the Hollywood-ised version we’re left with has completely  jettisoned all of the date’s Scottish heritage, while the ramped up consumerism feels eerily soulless.

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Scott Douglas, of public relations agency Holyrood PR in Scotland

Scott Douglas

Scott Douglas is the co-founder of the multi award-winning Holyrood Partnership, renowned public relations agency in Edinburgh, Scotland.
As well as providing expert PR services in Scotland and the UK, the former journalist heads a team which offers a host of other professional media services.
Those include crisis management PR, photography for business PR, affordable business video, social media campaigns and strategic content planning and delivery for businesses of all sizes.

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