Old School Halloween

Oct. 25, 2012

Oh, you better be wary of things that are scary! It’s time to carve the pumpkins and decide just how frightening to appear for the few pitiful little groups of trick-or-treaters who ring the doorbell. We live in a neighborhood that should attract hundreds of kids, but last year I think we only got about five or six small groups. And we were Too Scary in our Victorian ghost costumes.  I had no idea, but later, when I looked at the pictures we took, I realized how spooooky we were. I washed off my make-up when a little girl ran screaming back to her parents who waited on the sidewalk.

As an adult I understand that Halloween is a holiday with few redeeming features. There’s nothing uplifting about gruesome decorations, ghoulish costumes, and way too much candy. But oh! Halloween was FUN when I was a kid, and I can’t help but feel wistful about the steady demise of real, honest-to-goodness competitive trick-or-treating.

In the good old Halloween days, we would plan our costumes for weeks in advance, and nag our moms till they helped us put them together. Store-bought costumes in those days were not nearly as nice as the ones that can be purchased nowadays, so my mother usually sewed mine. The first costume I remember wearing was when I went as Pebbles Flintstone with a plastic bone in my hair. My older siblings took me around, and at one house a lady brought me inside to show her husband how cute I was. Nobody was worried about me entering a stranger’s house. I liked being shown off and my siblings were proud of me. Everything was cool.

In those days, no one that I knew thought that Halloween was evil. The churches even had spook alleys and Halloween carnivals. My friend’s vampire-clad father lay in a coffin and grabbed people who came too close at their church’s haunted house. We jumped and squealed and were not scarred for life. It was all in good fun, nothing was real, we were happy and safe. It was a delicious brand of scariness—kind of like fairy tales where you know everything ends happily and the bad guys won’t win.

So many churches (at least in Mississippi) now shy away from any mention of Halloween. One first-grader told me that Halloween is the “Devil’s Birthday.” How could anyone even know that? One church did have a “Noah’s Ark Party,” where the kids were supposed to dress up as animals, trying to tame things down. Of course one enterprising church in Columbus, Mississippi had a “Glimpse of Hell” spook alley, in order to “scare you straight” and raise a little money for their youth group on the side. The people who grabbed you were dressed as demons and there were a lot of torture scenes going on. I found the whole concept highly disturbing, I’m afraid.

Back in elementary school they let us wear our costumes to class. There was real competition then. One kid couldn’t decide whether to go as a devil or Superman, so he wore his devil costume under his Superman one. Did this reveal something about his character?

I, meanwhile, no longer wanted to be “cute.” I wanted to be scary. My mother would ask me, “Don’t you want to be a hobo? You could wear your dad’s pants and plaid shirt?” (By the way, I hear now that hobos are no longer politically correct, because they are belittling the plight of the homeless. Back then, such a thing would never have occurred to us—it was simply an easy-to-put-together costume.) I never wanted to be hobo. I wanted to be something elaborate and spooky that would cause my mother as much work as possible. Luckily she was a mother who could sew witch’s gowns and vampire capes. I wore plastic vampire teeth no matter how they cut into my gums or mummy wrappings no matter how they unraveled. But then came my fourth grade Halloween, when Linda M. came to school dressed as a Southern Belle in hoop skirt and ringlets. I looked at myself with my ratted hair, green skin, and fake, warty nose, and wished I was also Southern and belle-like. From then on I went as a fairy or shepherdess or princess.

On the big night in our sprawling neighborhood, we would run from house to house, eager to cover as much territory as possible. There were no cute plastic pumpkins for us to carry; instead we toted big, bulging pillowcases. I remember the excited feeling in my stomach after we’d rung the bell, waiting for the door to open. Who would answer it? Finally we’d actually know who lived in these houses we passed daily. “Trick or treat!” we’d yell. And then there’d be the little old lady who would give us an apple, the stingy person who’d drop in one of those nasty, chewy black- or orange-wrapped candies that you only see in October, or the generous person who showered in a handful of the good stuff. I was proud of always remembering to say, “Thank you.” Once there was the rumor that someone the next street over was giving out full-sized Hershey bars. We searched for that house, but never found it. It was just a beautiful legend.

Some people in our neighborhood went all-out decorating. We would shiver up walkways lined with ghosts and push our way through cobwebs. Sometimes Things would jump out at us from behind bushes. Aaah! Now we knew what caused the screams we’d heard earlier. At Dr. Brown’s house there was a table by the door, and on the table sat a tray of slimy liver and other organs. “He’s a doctor, so it’s probably real person’s insides,” we whispered. Our mothers told us this couldn’t be so, but still…

When our bags were almost too heavy to carry, we headed to one of our houses to sort candy. Sweet Tarts, Dum-Dums, Tootsie Rolls, Sugar Babies, Junior Mints, and Milk Duds each in their respective piles. We counted and traded. My dad always demanded a tax of a couple candy bars. We were greedy little things, and it was so fun that it was allowed one day out of the year.

Sure, the next morning we felt sick. Sure there were broken eggs splattered on the sidewalk and tattered toilet paper hung from the trees. But it was just one day.

Then came the sad days when there began to be Rumors of poisoned candy and razor blades in apples. Why would those little old apple-giving ladies do such a thing? The police even came to our school to warn us to have our parents check our candy at home before eating. The innocence was lost and the fun dimmed.

Nowadays, in many places, Halloween has been watered down into “Harvest Festivals.” But once there was a thrill in those dark streets and shadowy costumed groups, in one night when we could dress up as something different from what we really were, and the stomach- fluttering wait in front of strangers’ doors. I miss it.

Oh well, at least I can still read ghost stories by candlelight on Halloween night.

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November 3, 2012 · 1:37 am

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