RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Bathed in an eerie light, Yaser al-Hazzazi paused to adjust the bloodstained gauze wrapped around his head and face. His cousin Yahya leaned in to help, untangling a loose end that dangled over his relative’s white robe — splotched with a bloody handprint — before the pair strolled into a crowd of people decked out in devil horns and bunny ears.
Growing up in Saudi Arabia, the two 21-year-old men had never celebrated Halloween, which was variously viewed as a suspiciously pagan foreign holiday — or as sinful, unnecessary and weird — in the conservative Islamic kingdom. As recently as 2018, the police raided a Halloween party and arrested people, sending costumed women clamoring to cover up and escape.
But this year, parts of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, looked like creatures from a haunted house had escaped and taken over the city. Monsters, witches, bank robbers and even sultry French maids were everywhere, leaning out of car windows and lounging in cafes.
The scene was a stark — and a slightly spine-chilling — sign of the changes that have torn through Saudi Arabia since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, now heir to the throne and prime minister, began rising to power in 2015 and started doing away with social restrictions one by one.
And the cousins, along with thousands of other 20-somethings in Riyadh who had rushed to get to the city’s costume shops before they sold out, were thrilled by the chance to frighten each other.
“If we go back to the way we were, this wasn’t part of our customs and traditions,” Yahya al-Hazzazi said, as spooky music played over loudspeakers at Boulevard Riyadh City, a sprawling complex of shops, arcades and restaurants that opened in 2019 as part of the government’s push to provide entertainment. “We love to discover new things.”
This being Saudi Arabia, where strategic ambiguity reigns as social changes sweep across the country, the government-sponsored event was not, strictly speaking, a Halloween festival.
Instead, it was promoted as a “horror weekend,” conveniently coinciding with the weekend before Halloween.
Like many of those swarming the entertainment complex on Thursday night — jamming the surrounding neighborhood into gridlock and making any search for parking in vain — the al-Hazzazi cousins wanted costumes that would attract attention.
They threw together their makeshift mummy outfits using medical gauze they bought at a pharmacy and improvised fake blood using Vimto, a sugary red drink consumed during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month.
As they headed inside, red lights set a mysterious mood and decorative cobwebs festooned the bushes. Men, women and children clogged a look-alike Times Square, posing for photographs in front of a Dior logo and scarfing down fries at McDonald’s.
In another part of the city, a line of wannabe ghouls and goblins stretched down the block outside a party store selling so many Halloween costumes that employees could barely restock them fast enough. House music thumped from the shop’s entrance, guarded by a bouncer in a black suit.
“Saudi is changing,” said Abdulaziz Khaled, 23, a finance student awaiting his turn in line. Switching seamlessly midsentence between Arabic and English, Mr. Khaled said he planned to dress up as a wizard this year.
Waiting beside him, Reema al-Jaber, also 23, and sporting caramel-blonde bangs, wanted to go as a white-winged angel for a gathering at a friend’s house. “But I could be a black angel,” she fretted. “We have to see what they have in stock!”
Like most Saudis, Ms. al-Jaber had never celebrated Halloween growing up, though she’d seen it in movies. Sorcery and witchcraft were forbidden — with some accused practitioners prosecuted and beheaded by the state — and celebrating non-Islamic holidays like Valentine’s Day, Christmas and Halloween was taboo.
But forbidden foreign festivals were the least of it.
The Saudi Arabia of Ms. al-Jaber’s childhood was one where women were barred from driving, required to wear floor-length robes called abayas in public and accosted by the religious police shouting at them to cover their hair and face.
Myriad life decisions required the approval of a male guardian, and gender segregation was enforced in offices, cafes and many other spaces. Playing music in public was effectively prohibited.
Prince Mohammed, 37, also started a push to develop entertainment options as a new economic sector beyond oil. Many of the 58 percent of Saudis under 30 say they were starving for entertainment before the changes.
Movie theaters opened for the first time in decades, and a series of government-sponsored festivities took over the kingdom. The largest of them is the continuing “Riyadh Season,” a monthslong extravaganza that will culminate in DJ Khaled and Bruno Mars performing at a rave in the desert.
The changes have left some Saudis giddy and others angry or reeling, with the country nearly unrecognizable to outsiders and citizens alike.
The easing of some social restrictions has also been accompanied by a notable increase in political repression, with a crackdown on domestic dissent that has landed hundreds of writers, activists and Snapchat influencers in prison alongside billionaires, religious clerics and royal family members.
On social media, the government has deployed a mixture of manipulation and control, resulting in an increasingly unified narrative venerating the crown prince and his “Vision 2030” plan.
In private, some Saudis complain that the entertainment push feels like a distraction from economic challenges, like high youth unemployment, and political ones, like the lack of freedom of speech. The chaotic, carnival-like atmosphere that is allowed to briefly erupt on occasions like Saudi National Day and now Halloween is quickly bottled up again.
But any excuse to let loose is welcomed by many young people.
“We’re seeing what the government is doing here, which is great, and it’s really helping the people,” said Raad al-Kamel, 25, a store manager at Party Experts, where Halloween is the busiest time of year.
“Maybe people just want to drop life and just party and forget everything?” he said, wearing a tiny red demon on his shoulder. “At least for a moment, until they come back to real life.”
This weekend’s public Halloween celebrations, the second year they have been held, appeared to attract more adults than children. In Party Experts, children’s costumes were relegated to a small section in the back.
In the front, young men perused a wall of rubber masks, elaborate and terrifying. The costume choices for women were overwhelming. There was a Vixen Pirate Wench and a Classic School Girl, a Playtime bunny and a Tuxedo Madame Bunny, a Sophisticated Maid and a Pretty and Proper French Maid, a Kitty Witch and a Sultry Sea Witch and a Spellbinding Witch, and the perplexing Darling Robin Hood.
At midnight — when the last customers trickle out and the store closes — the music keeps going as the shop is transformed into a mini rave for employees to enjoy after a long day on their feet, Mr. al-Kamel said.
Some of the revelers at Riyadh Boulevard City seemed to have only a vague idea of what Halloween was, and had come simply to enjoy the atmosphere.
Abdulaziz al-Otaibi, 24, had orchestrated matching outfits with two friends, draping themselves in shiny white fabric from head to toe, with purple-rimmed sunglasses.
He seemed unsure when asked what he thought about Halloween — “You mean these activities?” he said.
Regardless, he was having a grand time with his friends, hamming it up for pictures.
“I was born in this life and I didn’t expect it to change, ever,” he said. “But it changed, and it’s a good thing.”