Halloween as an Example of American Cultural Imperialism

Posted on February 10, 2013


‘Mass culture is imposed from above… It is fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen; its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to a choice between buying and not buying’ – Dwight MacDonald.

As a form of cultural imperialism, writes professor Stephen Alomes of the Globalism Research Centre at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, Halloween ‘has had varying trajectories in different countries’. Although celebration of the festival is increasing in popularity in Australia fuelled by consumerism and American film and television – Alomes notes that ‘almost every series has a Halloween episode’ – the traditions of Halloween as experienced by the majority of Australians are inherited, or as Alomes puts it, ‘invented’ along with ‘Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day, and those Christian-derived festivals of consumerism, Christmas and Easter’. For Alomes, Halloween’s ‘invention’ is a consequence of research companies identifying an opportunity to exploit a hole in the ‘annual cycle of marketing festivities’ which occurs between the Australian football finals in September and the Christmas rush. It is, he maintains, merely an artificially created operation driven by confectionary companies and supermarkets which in stark contrast to the Halloween industry in the US, remains ‘insignificant in dollar terms’ and makes only ‘a modest impact in the marketing world’.

The extent of the stark contrast in the ‘varying trajectories in different countries’ Alomes describes is evident in Josh Sanburn’s article for Time Magazine’s business and money section in September 2012. In it, Sanburn reports that figures from the National Retail Federation predict ‘a record 170 million Americans will spend close to $8 billion on candy, pumpkins, decorations and costumes – both for them and their pets’. American consumers’ Halloween spending has experienced a steady increase for a number of years and despite a weak economy millions of Americans will spend in excess of $300 million on costumes for their pets. According to Sanburn, one reason for this stems from his belief that Halloween remains one of the annual events which provide ordinary Americans with the degree of escapism experienced by ‘dressing up our pets like Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson’. Yet the roots of Halloween tradition, the eve of the western Christian feast of All Hallows, lie not in modern American popular music, but in the harvest festivals and festivals of the dead of pre-medieval Europe.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word Halloween does not appear until the 16th century and represents a Scottish dialectical contraction of All Hallows Even (evening). The entry describes how revellers dressed in frightening masks and costumes to celebrate a feast thought to be associated with the Celtic festival of Samhain when ghosts and spirits were thought to walk abroad. In this early, possibly pagan form, the ritual bears little resemblance to Sanburn’s description of America’s annual orgy of consumer spending and raises questions over how the cultural imperialism Alomes refers to might have influenced Britain’s observance of Halloween. Initial research into the history of Britain’s Halloween traditions reveals that the celebration has undergone a process of almost perpetual cultural flux since its unknown inception. From Celtic Britain’s Samhain with its ritualistic harvesting of the year’s last crops in August, through Roman Britain’s Feralia which marked the end of a nine-day festival in honour of the dead, to the Catholic Church’s rebranding of the feast as All Saints Day in the 7th Century, the occasion and some of its traditions endure though its original meaning is lost upon many who still observe them.

When the first Europeans began establishing colonies in the Americas they brought with them relics of their own cultures and the traditions of Halloween in its many diverse forms became integrated into the newly founded cultures of the settlements. As the American nation evolved, so too did the celebration of Halloween as immigrants from all over Europe introduced national, regional and local variants of a continentally observed tradition. However, with the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, the celebratory bonfires on which the effigies of Guy Fawkes burned every 5th November came to assume greater cultural importance than the pyres of All Hallows Eve and the ancient festival’s popularity dwindled in Britain, although traditions survived in parts of Scotland and Ireland and also in North America. By the 18th Century, Mischief Night, which saw children playing tricks upon adults unless rewarded was being celebrated throughout Europe on the 4th November and although definitive origins are difficult to determine, it does not take a great leap of the imagination to fuse the costumed celebrations of All Hallows Eve with accounts of Mischief Night to establish a credible source for modern Halloween’s ritual of trick or treating.

Having considered Britain’s, and to some degree Europe’s, Halloween heritage, it becomes necessary to examine how modern practice differs from traditional festivities and what cultural influence might have effected such change. Returning briefly to Alomes’s view of Halloween as purely a commercial enterprise, there is growing concern in Australia over the increasingly popular celebration of a commercially driven imported festival that is perceived as further evidence of the Americanisation of the country. In order to see what the implications for that nation are should the process continue unopposed, one need only consider the influence of the American brand of Halloween in Britain. Since the doldrums of the reign of King James I, Halloween’s resurgent popularity, as Amelia Hill writes, sees it occupy the position of ‘the third most profitable event for retailers behind Christmas and Easter; way ahead of Guy Fawkes Night and Valentine’s Day’. Market analysts say that British consumers are catching up with their American counterparts and ‘spending on Halloween paraphernalia has risen from £12 million five years ago [2001] to an expected £120 million this year [2006]’. The reasons for this upsurge seem eerily familiar when Hill reports the views of a spokesperson for Woolworths, an American import which eventually succumbed to the global economic crisis despite increased sales of its Halloween merchandise:

‘It’s no longer a matter of a few plastic fangs,’ said Francesca Colling, from Woolworths. ‘People want expensive gimmicks. They want a wide range of themed food and drink. They want extravagant decorations for their houses. They even want fancy-dress outfits for their pets’.

Hill provides further evidence in support of Alomes’s claims when she reveals that customer demand for Halloween themed goods was so great in 2004 that some retailers failed to anticipate the size of the market. As a consequence of their failure to capitalise on sales Sainsbury’s announced in 2005 that its stores would be dedicating a third of their Halloween range to the adult market ‘to meet the demand we were unable to satisfy last year’. Similarly, Tesco executives recognised that demand had been so extreme the company anticipated a 33 per cent rise in sales from 2004 to 2005 and had ‘put together a team who spent the last six months researching Halloween trends and looking at products to buy, involving making trips to America’. In their attempts to maximise future sales and make up for 2005’s losses, Sainsbury’s decision to dedicate a large percentage of its merchandising specifically towards adults is worthy of further attention. While conducting his own research into the effectiveness of themed advertising, professor Alomes also noticed that in addition to novelty masks and Halloween decorations, lines that seldom cost more than a few dollars, adult fancy dress costumes retailing at $19.95 were among the most profitable goods available. Alomes attributes this pattern in part to a characteristic excess, commenting jocularly that Australians, particularly young adults, ‘love any excuse for a party’. While there may indeed be some truth in his assessment of national character, the perception of modern Halloween celebrations as merely an excuse for bacchanalian revelry introduces a perspective that contributes to understanding the opposition in some quarters to what is perceived as the cultural erosion of Halloween.

Alomes’s concerns over the Americanisation of Halloween and the Australian nation are echoed in Britain by many critics and commentators who regard the festival in a purely negative light. Media outlets too seem particularly fond of demonstrating their aversion to what is often misconceived as an American invention. Three articles sourced from The Telegraph newspaper illustrate opposition to the Americanisation of Halloween from different standpoints. In the first, Editor Damian Thompson assumes a typically dismissive position by conceding that October 31st is the only time he becomes ‘seriously anti-American’ because ‘our national media, retailers and brainwashed children have all been sucked in to the American cult of Halloween’. Despite marking ‘a perfectly respectable (and depressing event) in the Christian calendar’, Thompson continues, the commercially driven modern Halloween phenomenon was created by America where ‘an entire nation throws itself into a Halloween party with a naïve enthusiasm that comes naturally to Yanks’. Thompson’s deliberately provocative prose and his haughty tone is intended to both stimulate and polarise opinion among his readership, but in assuming a position of cultural superiority, he inadvertently illustrates the view of F. R. Leavis who wrote:

‘Now if the worst effects of mass-production and standardisation were represented by Woolworth’s there would be no need to despair. But there are effects that touch the life of the community more seriously. When we consider, for instance, the processes of mass-production and standardisation in the form represented by the Press, it becomes obviously of sinister significance that they should be accompanied by a process of levelling-down’.

Thompson’s moral guardianship of Britain’s Halloween standards now appears undermined by his own literary and analytical standards, which, as Leavis indicates, are subject to the same cultural forces as the festival and the brainwashed media of which Thompson is so overtly critical.

In the second article taken from The Telegraph, journalist Rose Prince ruminates over the succumbing of All Souls and All Saints days’ original solemn intentions to the forces of commercialism before confessing in the title of her article that ‘I don’t dare to avoid Halloween’. Prince begins her piece by announcing that ‘I hate the Americanisation of this festival about as much as sweet manufacturers love it’ and continues to address her retrospective concerns over the wisdom of opening the door to ‘masked hoodies’. The thinly veiled reference to the perceived wide-spread anti-social behavioural problems in Britain’s urban areas is offered as a contrast to the genial portrayal of American kids out trick or treating she states is so familiar from American film and television. Prince concludes her article by claiming that the reality of modern Halloween celebrations as epitomised by America’s televisual media, bears little resemblance to the original British and European historical traditions. Furthermore, she echoes Alomes’s concerns and proposes herself as metonymic of the British people who see modern Halloween celebrations as further evidence of not only the Americanisation of the occasion, but of the cultural erosion of traditional Protestant festivals through their exploitation by ‘the junk food industry’ and its ‘rampant commercialism’.

Yet Prince’s reasons for not daring to avoid the annual Halloween celebrations are not clear and the only real evidence provided can be gleaned from her envy of the boastful immunity of those ‘who live in top floor flats’. From this admission it appears that Prince, like many British people, is resigned to buying and distributing confectionary for gangs of surly teenagers. Nevertheless, through her reluctant consumerist support for a culturally bankrupt commercial event, Prince is identifiable with many British people who would prefer not to mark certain festive occasions because over time they have ceased to hold any symbolic meaning. And further influence can be felt in class perceptions of how people choose to observe Halloween as Prince acknowledges when she writes of organised trick or treating in the ‘yummy mummy suburbs’ where, in a riposte to the wiles of the confectionary industry, the affluent middle-class parents reward children with ‘organic Geobars and certified Fairtrade chocs’. Clearly then, in addition to exposure to themed advertising and aggressive marketing campaigns which, as Hill has demonstrated, have stimulated sales of Halloween products to a level comparable to those of American consumers, there is also social and cultural pressure to enter into the spirit of things that causes many reluctant consumers to contribute on a smaller scale to the burgeoning Halloween economy.

Prince’s actions, like those of many British consumers, demonstrate the moral dilemma experienced by those who find their choices limited in accordance with Dwight Macdonald’s theory on mass culture which forms part of the question this paper seeks to address. Using Macdonald’s theoretical model, the imposition of mass culture from above is evident in the marketing strategies Hill outlines in her article and which reveal how the technicians and businessmen of Sainsbury’s and Tesco ‘fabricate’ a cultural product which is intended to satisfy consumer demand for profit. According to Macdonald, such cultural imposition is capable of integrating the masses into a ‘debased form of High Culture and thus becoming an instrument of political domination’. Yet when enforced by commercial limitations such as those Macdonald identifies, the domination he speaks of is built upon market strategies. An alternative view to Macdonald is provided by Ernest Van den Haag, who argues that rather than signalling deterioration in mass taste, the impact of commercially driven events such as modern Halloween celebrations demonstrate a re-evaluation of the significance of mass taste to cultural producers in western societies. Through the pursuit of the profits which can be gained by accessing Halloween’s mass market appeal, cultural producers, manufacturers and retailers, as exemplified by Sainsbury’s direct targeting of adult consumers, design their lines to have mass, rather than high cultural, appeal. As Van den Haag writes:

‘The mass produced article need not aim low, but it must aim at an average of tastes. In satisfying all (or at least many) individual tastes in some respects, it violates each in other respects. For there are so far no average persons having average tastes. Averages are statistical composites. A mass produced article, while reflecting nearly everybody’s taste to some extent, is unlikely to embody everybody’s taste fully’.

The final Telegraph article concerns opposition from the Roman Catholic Church to the perceived ‘spread of Hallowe’en traditions from the US to other countries around the world.’ Written in October 2009 by Nick Squires, the article continues to report that the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, carried warnings to parents not to allow children to celebrate the pagan festival of ‘”terror, fear and death”. An important error committed by Squires in his brief synopsis of Britain’s Halloween traditions demonstrates how misconceptions about the festival also contribute to critical understanding of the perceived Americanisation of the occasion. As in Britain, Squires writes, ‘it is only in recent years that Italian children have dressed up in costumes, played trick or treat on their neighbours and made lanterns out of hollowed out pumpkins’. Confirming Leavis’s concern over the potential levelling down of the press as a consequence of mass culture, Squires is inadvertently guilty of displaying a degree of cultural detachment and exemplifying the erosion of Protestant traditions in Britain that Prince refers to. In refute of Squires’ claims, it is widely known from the earliest records of Halloween-style festivals in Britain and Europe, that people wore animal masks and pelts to protect themselves from malevolent spirits and that as recently as the 1800s, ‘guising’, in which costumed children visited the homes of friends and neighbours and received edible gifts in return, was being practiced. Furthermore, many scholars hold that the practice of lantern carving originated in Ireland where turnips and beetroot were originally used. Immigrants from Ireland and Scotland brought these cultural traditions to North America where the practice continued and where, over time, the readily available and easier to carve pumpkin was adopted for the purpose.

Squires’ naivety is understandable in a post-modern world where many people have become detached from the customs and traditions associated with earlier phases of their national culture. Despite the richness of Britain’s Halloween heritage, the dominant perception of the festival as it is now understood by many who observe it is of the American model so familiar, as both Alomes and Prince have pointed out, from exposure to American film and television and where the festivities are portrayed in almost mythical terms. Another significant aspect of the perceived Americanisation of Halloween can be found in the attitude in the US towards the wearing of costumes. As Alomes research and Sainsbury’s marketing strategy confirm, costume retains an important role in celebrating Halloween but the costumes favoured by revellers today have also undergone a dramatic change. As Sanburn informs in his article; in America, anything goes, even dressing pets up like pop music icons which have absolutely no cultural connection to Halloween traditions whatsoever. Children wear costumes adapted from Disney movies and television cartoons, while adults, particularly women, have also imparted their own risqué angle on Halloween fancy dress. In fact another frequent complaint from critics is the sexualisation of Halloween themed costumes which raises questions over whether nurses’ costumes and school uniforms have any place in the marking of an occasion with such solemn beginnings. Similarly, some critics have voiced concerns over whether unacceptable expectations are being made of women who now face pressure to dress up for Halloween, the guidelines apparently being; women can wear anything they like as long as it is provocative and revealing. The American horror film and ‘slasher movies’ have also exerted considerable cultural influence over peoples’ choice of Halloween costume with partygoers routinely dressing as Freddy Krueger or wearing the hockey-style masks associated with Jason Vorhees, the murderer in the Friday the 13th film franchise and Michael Myers from John Carpenter’s Halloween series.

Halloween can be seen to have undergone a lengthy process of cultural transformation throughout its history culminating in the commercial spectacle experienced today in which consumers face Macdonald’s simple and restrictive choice; to buy or not to buy into an arguably Americanised aggressive marketing event. Sales figures from America and Britain demonstrate the grip western cultural producers and retailers have over the way Halloween is communicated, celebrated and understood by those who observe it, while Australia appears to be experiencing the start of a new wave of cultural imperialism. However, it remains to be seen how Australians will react to concerted efforts to influence their consumer spending by marketing Halloween as just another good excuse for a party. In comparison, Britain has demonstrated its susceptibility to American-style aggressive sales and marketing strategies through the willingness of British companies and retailers to plunder the US in search of the latest Halloween trends in an effort to capitalise on the marketing opportunity Alomes has described. Fuelled amongst other things by America’s televisual media imperialism, Britain finds itself increasingly removed from the original traditions and meanings surrounding October 31st and instead appears willing to embrace yet another cultural rebranding of one of its earliest and most successful exports to America; a Halloween which, to paraphrase Van den Haag, ‘is unlikely to embody everybody’s taste’.

Alomes, Stephen, ‘Ghastly consumerism haunts Halloween sham’ from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website.

Hill, Amelia, ‘A scary story: we spend £120 million on Halloween’ in The Guardian, October 22nd 2006.

Leavis, F. R., ‘Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture’ in John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006).

Macdonald, Dwight, ‘A Theory on Mass Culture’ in John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006).

Sanburn, Josh, ‘More Americans Planning to Spend Money on Halloween – And Pet Costumes – This Year’ in Time Magazine, September 26th 2012.

Simpson, John, and Edmund Weiner (eds.), The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Squires, Nick, ‘Vatican condemns Hallowe’en as anti-Christian’ in The Telegraph, October 30th 2009.

Thompson, Damian, ‘Britain is sick of the cult of Halloween’ in The Telegraph, October 30th 2009.

Van den Haag, Ernest, ‘Of Happiness and of Despair We Have No Measure’ in Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White (eds.), Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, (New York: The Free Press, 1957).