TONIGHT, the chances of settling down for a quiet evening in front of the television, or with a book, are virtually nil.
That’s because it’s Halloween and there’s every likelihood, just like last year, that I’ll be up and down like a jack-in-the-box between about 6pm and 10pm in response to knocks at the front door.
I stopped counting after the sixth lot of trick-or-treaters last time. That tally didn’t include the mob that ambushed me as I unloaded the car after work, even before I’d got into the house.
Common sense dictated that the two adults who were with them could see I had my hands full, with fileboxes under each arm, a laptop slung over one shoulder and a bag over the other, and therefore unlikely to be able to start handing out sweets, even if I’d had any.
But no, they just looked miffed when I apologised to the children for not having anything to give them, the expression on their faces clearly marking me down as the neighbourhood’s resident misery-guts.
There’s little choice but to answer the door because friends, neighbours or family routinely pop round unannounced, and it’s a dilemma for any of us who think that the lunacy of the cynical, money-making juggernaut that is Halloween has got completely out of hand.
What are you supposed to do? Give in to the hype and start offering sweets? Or feel like a curmudgeon for sending children away empty-handed?
That’s the nasty undercurrent of how the whole Halloween industry has developed – the intrusion of knocking on somebody’s door, and then the subtle psychological pressure on people who, even though they would rather not take part, don’t want to disappoint children.
And it certainly is an industry. Tonight’s shenanigans are, in sales terms, the second-biggest party night in the calendar after New Year’s Eve.
The mountains of overpriced tat that fill supermarkets in the run-up to Halloween raked in more than £450m last year, a figure that is bound to be exceeded this time round.
That’s because for the last 30 years, since big retailers followed America’s lead, Halloween has been ruthlessly marketed at children.
Even if their parents have reservations about the whole thing – and I know many who do – the pressure on them to conform is immense.
They’re right to have reservations. Gradually, Halloween has not only become about exploiting the excitement of children for commercial gain, but about pushing messages at them that are plain wrong.
The trick-or-treat routine is an unsavoury cross between begging and making demands backed up by threats. The threats don’t amount to anything, but I’ve known elderly people unsettled by them, as well as being repeatedly disturbed in their own homes at night.
It’s not a good idea to plant in impressionable young minds the idea that they can get what they want if only they threaten somebody.
But much worse is encouraging children to approach strangers for sweets. It’s as if we’ve learned nothing from horrific incidents which have made it heartbreakingly apparent how easily the young can fall victim to predators.
Every responsible parent drills it into their children not to go to strangers, or take anything from them. Schools reinforce the message, and society is more acutely aware of the need to protect the young than ever before.
Yet in the run-up to Halloween, and on the night itself, all that goes out of the window and children are actively encouraged to approach adults they don’t know.
Not every group of trick-or-treaters is under adult supervision when they’re wandering the streets at night. Like many other people, I’ve had unaccompanied children under the age of ten knocking at the door long after dark.
On any other evening, it would be such a cause of concern to see such young children out alone that the only proper course would be to alert the police.
Call me old-fashioned, but it just isn’t right for parents to let this happen. It’s downright irresponsible.
There’s no way of halting the relentless growth of Halloween as a commercial bonanza, but there could and should be a drive to take it off the streets by both parents and the retailers who make a killing out of it.
Instead of encouraging children to knock on the doors of strangers, Halloween needs to be reinvented as a night for them to have a party at home with their friends round.
The shops won’t sell any fewer fake cobwebs or gobstoppers resembling eyeballs, so they needn’t fret about their profits.
But it would put a stop to the nasty message underlying trick-or-treat, and spare those of us who want nothing to do with it whatsoever. Best of all, it would allow children to enjoy themselves in safety.