Halloweens gone by: British rituals and traditions captured on film

These eight films capture flaming torch processions, pumpkin competitions and the mischievous devilry of British Halloween and Bonfire Night from the 1920s to the 1970s.

30 October 2023

By George Bass

Punky Lantern Procession at Dalwood (1963)

Halloween eats up over £600 million of British spending money each year, and is an American import that’s diluted our national identity. Unsurprisingly, only the first half of that sentence is true: while curmudgeons might believe we used to jump straight from conkers into Bonfire Night, a form of Halloween has been present in the UK for centuries, taking its cues from traditions such as the Christian All Hallows’ Eve, the pre-Roman feast of the dead Samhain, and Mischief Night held on 4 November. The only break in the practice of dressing ghoulishly to appease the dead came during the 16th and 17th centuries when the Puritans banned it.

Since then, going trick-or-treating (or ‘guising’ as it was known in Scotland and Northern England) has gone from strength to strength. Penny for the Guy? (1961), a newsreel on BFI Player, shows one enterprising young lad who plans to use his Guy money to buy sweets instead of fireworks – an act of heresy that would no doubt win Fawkes’s own approval.

Decades earlier, in 1922’s Bridgwater Celebrates, the annual bonfire parade features enough flaming torches, entertainers in medieval costume and locals waving tridents that it looks more like a sacrificial ceremony than a village gathering.

By the time of Punky Lantern Procession at Dalwood (1963), a more recognisable version of Halloween can be seen. We follow kids in east Devon clutching fearsome-looking lanterns (which are carved not from pumpkins but from local root vegetable mangelwurzels), and walking down dark country streets with their parents. With the exception of one onlooker in a witch’s hat, the adults don’t appear to be joining in with the costumes. But there’s a definite air of devilry to the proceedings, particularly among the watching grandparents who are recorded merrily cavorting, sipping spirits, and copying the kids’ strange circular dancing.

Five years later, Halloween Hubble Bubble (1968) shows us that ghosts are now being taught in school. A teacher explains the origin of All Hallows’ Eve, and the pupils get a chance to share their thoughts on Halloween. One young girl explains: “In the olden days, the people used to think that evil spirits came out … every time somebody had a sore throat or something like that happened, they used to say ‘It’s those evil spirits again.’”

In Yeti Look from the same year, we follow a young woman turning heads in Newcastle as she walks through the city centre while wearing an Abominable Snowman hat to meet a blind date.

Perhaps conscious of Halloween’s growing popularity, the Eastbourne Cine Group made an amateur horror short, Mirror Mirror (1969), which cashed in on the October setting and the array of gruesome costumes. Made on the cusp of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, this is a cautionary tale about a killer who strikes at Halloween – it predates John Carpenter by almost a decade. An antique looking-glass is the MacGuffin that takes us into a grisly parallel dimension, and introduces one of cinema’s very first scary clowns.

There’s a different kind of malevolence in Market Bosworth Pumpkin Growers (1975). All seems innocent in the reel’s opening shots of men in waistcoats enjoying a drink outside The Old Black Horse, and discussing the upcoming vegetable-growing competition. But the pub harbours a sinister secret: landlady Margaret is rumoured to have grown a pumpkin so huge that Cinderella could drive home in it, and that needs to be stored in a secret allotment. The possibility of a weight reading enhanced via mercury injections is discussed: perhaps the birthplace of those apples-filled-with-razor-blades rumours that do the rounds every Halloween.

Towards the end of the 1970s, there are glimpses of how profitable witch and warlock costumes will become in Punky Night at Hinton St. George (1977). In honour of the tradition of village wives heading out into the night to retrieve their husbands from Chiselborough Fair, kids in homemade masks walk the same route. And although they’re guided by the same vegetable lanterns seen in previous clips, this time there’s the addition of a tractor-drawn float which is carrying the newly crowned Punky King and Queen. Loyal subjects armed with collecting buckets knock on onlookers’ doors.

In the decades since, the American convention of trick-or-treating has become widely popular in the UK, with no tractors required in order to facilitate a donation. But despite the unwritten rule of only knocking at houses which have a candle in the window, the BBC once pranked the entire country when they aired the controversial Ghostwatch (1992): a drama about a haunted council house which some viewers took to be proof of poltergeists’ existence. Behind the Curtains (2012) is an investigation into how the programme was made, why the late Sir Michael Parkinson agreed to host it, and the 10-year ban that prohibited any repeats. It seems the centuries-old Mischief Night survives after all… Happy Halloween.

Penny for the Guy?, Punky Lantern Procession at Dalwood, Halloween Hubble Bubble and Punky Night at Hinton St. George are from the collection of the South West Film and Television Archive (SWFTA).

Yeti Look is from the collection of the North East Film Archive.

Mirror Mirror is from the collection of Screen Archive South East.

Market Bosworth Pumpkin Growers is from the collection of MACE (Media Archive for Central England).

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