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"I don't want to live in a country that will elect Sarah Palin."

Fragments of a conversation between two grey-blonde ladies, sitting a few rows down, drift above the racket of the unlit airport coach that bounces and grinds towards Manhattan on Halloween.

"And can you imagine: Cindy McCain, that Stepford wife?"

Sarah Palin scares people. John, and evidently Cindy McCain too, scare people. The drawing on the cover of the current New Yorker shows a group of terrified ghouls fleeing a pair of toddlers in McCain and Palin masks. Barack and Michelle Obama definitely scare people, too, although any shivers their names send down the spines of New Yorkers are mostly of a pleasurable kind. It's as if Halloween, a meaningless relic kept in our calendar for its commercial value alone, once again serves a ritual purpose ahead of the 4 November election.

The scale and inclusiveness of the version of Halloween that awaits me in Manhattan seems to confirm this. In the thronged streets near Union Square, those with particularly droll costumes receive the whooping applause of passers-by, and repay it by breaking into dance. I see a couple of okay-looking Palins (female) and a grotesque Hilary (male). At one point, the crowd appears to part to let a lone man in a suit stride coolly against its flow. He's white, and wearing a rubber Obama mask. But this isn't some communal Bacchic pantomime, designed to explore the mysteries of race and gender that have surrounded this election. The hysteria is here every year, independent of election fever, and the fears will remain.

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