Halloween in France: be very afraid?
I experienced my first “all-o-ween” in France way back in October 1995, the year I studied abroad in Grenoble. A small group of exchange students, we dressed up in costumes and headed to a Halloween party at one of the expat bars. On the tram, no one else was dressed up. The penetrating stares and laughs made me a bit uncomfortable. I definitely didn’t envy my poor friend Valery who, dressed as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz in her blue gingham mini-dress, got accosted by aggressive teenagers yanking on her pig tales!
Then in 2007, I went out as a witch with my date, Count Dracula. Despite spending hours getting ready — pointy hat, black nails polish, green face makeup, and giant mole — I wasn’t very convinced by my witchiness. You see, I’ve always suffered from costume envy. Friends’ Moms would spent weeks on their sewing machines creating gorgeous, elaborate, hand-made costumes for their daughters. On the other hand, I couldn’t compete wearing the same tired bandanna and ripped jeans year after year. Whether as a gypsy, a punk rocker, or a bum, I usually ended up disappointed or ashamed by my costume.
Those childhood demons were coming back to haunt me and caught up to me that night on the way to the Halloween bash at Pigalle. Walking into a restaurant, we were met with piercing stares and a cold silence, broken only by a few forks crashing onto the plates below them. I wanted to utter a shrill witchy laugh and cast a spell on them, but instead I hung my head in shame and followed our hostess as she hurriedly escorted us to a far back corner of the annex to the main restaurant area, completely out of sight so as not to scare any customers. The only thing missing was a little sign on the table, “reservé pour monstres” (reserved for freaks). We never made it to Pigalle after dinner; we went home instead.
But to be fair, we must have looked like total freaks in that restaurant. Dressing up for Halloween is just not something people do here. October 31st in France is nothing more than the day before the “Toussaint” holiday or “All Saints Day” which means a day off work. Pumpkins, ghouls, and ghosts did briefly overtake store fronts in Paris shops for a season or two in the early 2000s. But for whatever reason, the Halloween fad quickly died off. Now, apart from the Zombie parade in the Marais, it’s merely celebrated by foreigners, primarily British and North American.
Nope, the French just aren’t into Halloween, et tant mieux (thank goodness)! No gorging oneself on chocolates for weeks leading up to Halloween. No hosing off demolished jack-o-lanterns from the front steps the next morning. But best of all, there’s no more scrambling to piece together a costume! I don’t sew, I am the last-minute queen, and I don’t necessarily believe in investing time & money into something to be worn once. So for me the costume thing is nothing short of a nightmare. Barring the year I was Uma Thurman’s character from Pulp Fiction after she overdosed and got injected in the chest with an adrenalin shot, looking in the mirror on Halloween night usually leaves me feeling disappointed by my lame disguise.
Would Halloween 2009 be different?
Weeks in advance, some enthusiastic friends began rallying for Halloween. We would dress up. We would go out and celebrate. And I would be Wonder Woman. Already in possession of red patent leather boots, the only things lacking were the outfit and accessories. There were hundreds of Wonder Woman costumes on eBay, all sexy, stretchy and flammable. Wasn’t there something different, special, and perhaps made of natural fibers, or was I asking too much?
Then I found it: a 1975 vintage Ben Cooper Wonder Women one-piece “Play suit” in woman’s size L. I stayed up till 2 am to bid. Totally worth it – I won it for $7. Victory!! The seller quickly shipped it so that it would arrive on time. Just before Halloween, I was notified that a package was waiting for me at the rue Boinod post office, so I hurried there to pick it up one night after work. Zut! They were closed for construction. The next day I raced to my usual post office, which had just reopened after months of renovations. Zut alors: my package wasn’t there either! It must be at Boinod. Only the store front was under construction, not the back storage area; I would find my parcel there. And indeed I did! But when I opened the box and removed the play suit, I realized it was for a child. (Queue Debbie Downer theme) waaaa waaaaa waaaaaaaaaaaaa…
Halloween night quickly arrived and I was panic-stricken. My very patient and determined boyfriend, already dressed as Inspector Gadget, managed to calm me down in a moment of sheer terror that nearly lead me to boycott Halloween forever.
The winning formula: the costume + 1 pair of scissors to cut it into adult-friendly pieces+ 1 black wig + 25 safety pins + wrist bands = Wonder Woman. For the first time in my life, I was damn proud of my Halloween costume.
And off we went. Our hostess Caroline, dressed as a sexy witch, created the perfect Halloween warm-up ambiance with ghost and cobweb decorations, dim lighting, and spooky Halloween music. On the menu was a selection of black and orange foods only including carrots, pureed pumpkin, orange cheese — not cheddar, from France! — and orange vodka cocktails. Dessert was old school orange Jell-o and chocolate orange cupcakes from Berko. Mmmm.
We put the finishing touches on our costumes and started walking to the Elysee Montmartre. It was a rainy night but even in a long green raincoat, there was no concealing my identity. Passersby commented “C’est Wonder Woman!” and suddenly all the years of pitiful costumes suddenly melted away. I felt strong and powerful, Princess Diana of Paradise Island.
Thanks to Caroline, we bypassed the long queue and got in for a special rate as ‘meet up’ members. The Elysee Montmartre was decorated in orange and black balloons with 2 big screens showing hair-raising scenes from movies like The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, The Exorcist, and Hocus Pocus. The music was funky 70s and 80s. A few of the usual suspects were in attendance: some angels, a mummy, a devil, a French maid, a few Michael Jacksons, and Snow White. But where were the rest of the costumes? Only a handful were dressed up among hundreds!!! Oh well, it didn’t matter. We danced so hard that wigs, umbrellas, sunglasses and other costume bits went flying off! Makeup started melting down our faces and costume layers were peeled off as the venue got hotter and hotter! But in spite of it all, Inspector Gadget, disco Lady Gaga, Gandhi, Sexy witch, and Wonder Woman had the best costumes in the whole joint. (Queue Vincent Price laugh from the end of the Thriller video) Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…