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Fright night

Melbourne Age 30 October, 2008, pp 20.
By Annie Lawson

Drew SintonNOT long ago, you needed an American twang to justify scooping out the flesh of pumpkins to make Jack O'Lanterns and depleting the neighbours' pantries of sugar-laden food.

These days, an Aussie accent will suffice. You just need to be between the ages of three and 10, live in the kind of street where neighbours acknowledge each other, and have access to zombie make-up.

The practice of trick-or-treating may still be in its infancy in this part of the planet but Halloween celebrations are growing in popularity.

Residents in a cul-de-sac in Alphington regularly embrace the Halloween ritual, a Celtic tradition stretching back to the 5th century BC that Americans enthusiastically adopted after Irish people moved to the US to escape the potato famine.

All Hallows Eve (October 31) is meant to be an ideal time for spirits to make contact with the physical world and when magic is at its most potent. The ghoulish outfits supposedly ward off evil spirits. Trick-or-treating evolved in 9th century Europe, where Christians begged for "soul cakes" before saying prayers on behalf of the donors' dead relatives.

Ideally, treats these days are of the chocolate variety, although apples, muesli bars, sugar-free lollies and rubber spiders are common in Alphington because most people don't stock up on sweets for Halloween.

Nonetheless, this has not deterred the group of 15 primary-school kids from their mission: to find chocolate and lollies. And sometimes they stumble across such nuggets.

"Most years parents are pretty unprepared," says resident Kate Smith, who subtly supervises her children from a distance. "But people are generous � when they didn't have any treats, a rubber spider was dangled in the doorway last year, so it's pretty low key."

She says the ritual began five years ago in her street. Her children, Matilda, 8, and Felix, 5, joined the gang of Halloween devotees more recently.

"People scrabble about their pantries, cleaning out old lollies. My kids got a packet of biscuits, a couple of apples and a few muesli bars last year," she says. "They get excited if they get a chocolate � it's a bonus � but it's more the activity and being able to dress up."

Daylight saving, safety concerns and the ubiquitous myth about sweets containing razors are still deterrents for some parents. Unless of course they live in a tight-knit community such as Alphington.

The Simpsons and other American shows have inspired the growth of Halloween parties in Australia in recent years, benefiting pumpkin wholesalers and costume hire companies alike.

Costume designer Rose Chong believes Halloween surpasses Christmas in popularity for fancy dress parties. "We think that corporates are not having Christmas parties and are having Halloween ones instead in the past two or three years," she says. "There's quite a lot of private parties and this time of year is busy anyway because of Melbourne Cup week and muck-up week, so everyone is in party mode."

Chong hires out saucy Halloween costumes for adults. Sexy witch and pirate outfits are in demand. The financial crisis hasn't curbed the festivities because "when times get tough, people party".

At the Costume Factory in the city, manager Rose Capuano says Heath Ledger's version of the Joker is a popular costume with children, along with Beetlejuice, Morticia and traditional vampires and zombies. "We've sold hundreds of Halloween costumes," she says. "It's huge because we've got all the corporates coming in with their families."

Hundreds of Melburnians with surreal sensibilities are again preparing to indulge their inner ghoul with Halloween-themed tours of the Melbourne General Cemetery. This year National Trust senior historian Dr Celestina Sagazio will co-ordinate 14 tours on Friday and Saturday nights.

The tours, which started four years ago as a gimmick to raise funds for graveyard restoration, guided more than 600 people around the darkened shadows in 2005, 400 in 2006 and 470 last year.

"The reason that Halloween is appealing to people is that it's one of the oldest holidays, with origins going back thousands of years," Sagazio says. "It reflects people's timeless fascination with the spirit world and ties in beautifully with the cemetery at night."

Cemetery-goers visit 30 prominent grave sites, including those of former prime ministers Sir Robert Menzies, Sir John Gorton and James Scullin, as well as explorers Burke and Wills.

The only incident in four years did not come from other-worldly forces � a police helicopter once followed a group, mistaking them for torch-bearing vandals.

A word of caution to would-be ghost-hunters, though: apparently a cemetery is one of the worst places for spectre-sighting.

"The theory is that you are more likely to see these ghosts in buildings because a lot of these people had traumatic deaths or they have had some reason to remain on Earth and are usually tied to the house rather than a cemetery," Sagazio says.

Something strange did happen, Sagazio says, when George Miller, of Mad Max fame, re-created the funeral of thespian Frederick Baker, also known as Francesco Federici, whose ghost reputedly haunts the Princess Theatre. In a documentary about the actor, Miller used nine actors but when they looked at the film a 10th figure was spotted standing among the mourners. (Cue spooky music.)

Meanwhile, Drew Sinton, owner of The Haunted Bookshop and former Church of Satan grotto master, plans to capitalise on the public's growing fascination for Halloween.

He helped plan this weekend's inaugural Melbourne Bizarre Music Festival, with acts including burlesque and cabaret performances, and Circus Horrificus, whose performers demonstrate the art of sword swallowing and other gruesome-looking feats.

Sinton will host his regular Haunted Melbourne ghost tour on Saturday, exploring the city's spooky buildings, blind alleys and ghostly corners. But he is ditching the tour on Friday to spend the evening conducting a personal seance, because, he insists, "not everything I do is public".

Pagans celebrate the last harvest festival on October 31 in the northern hemisphere, but Sinton is prepared to overlook the fact that it should be held in April for the southern hemisphere. "Every day for me is Halloween," he says.


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