Adults measure time in dates… the date your mortgage payment is due each month, the date of your next physical, the date of your next business trip. Children measure time in events … the time you broke your arm climbing a tree, the Christmas you got a BB gun, the grade you were in when you had your first kiss. Childhood memories tend to flow together, mingling like streams feeding a large river, until it’s impossible to distinguish one from the other. Only the major happenings of life stand upright, like islands in the river.
To be sure, there were the usual milestones in the life of a young Unimonster, as well. My first kiss was in Sixth Grade; my little brother and I got matching BB guns for Christmas 1978, over the objections of my mother (thanks, big brother!); and I’ve never had a broken bone … despite totaling a Cadillac that hit me as I dashed across a busy highway when I was 15. But along with these, rather mundane, highlights of my life are those of a more … unusual nature. And some of the most prominent “islands” in the river of my memory center around my love of Monsters, Horror, and Halloween.
Halloween when I was a child was quite different from the two-month-long shopping extravaganza that it is now. Now, Halloween is celebrated by nearly everyone, of nearly every age, and is second only to Christmas in terms of sales generated. Halloween decorating is big business, with dozens of companies supplying everything the home-bound haunter could desire for their porch-side graveyard, from 99¢ hokey rubber bats to animatronic reanimated corpses costing hundreds, even thousands of dollars. The same people who go overboard when decorating for Christmas have taken to Halloween with gusto, pushing the bar ever higher with scary, gory, creative displays. And costumes have progressed far from the screen-printed vinyl pajamas of my youth. Today’s parents routinely spend $40, $50, even $100 on costumes for their children … and even more on their own outfits, something of which my parents never would have dreamed.
In the early 70’s, my peak Trick-or-Treating years, any house with a Jack o’Lantern on the porch was considered decorated and fair game for a visit. We thought ourselves fortunate if stores had Halloween supplies two weeks before the big day, and even then, the selection left much to be desired. That never mattered to me, as once I was old enough to know better
the thought of wearing a store-bought costume was simply unacceptable. Store-bought costumes, at least in my childhood, were anything but scary. Rather than making a costume that would allow your average MonsterKid to in some way resemble Frankenstein's Monster, the companies that produced them gave you a cheap plastic one-piece with a picture of the Monster (and not a very good one, at that …) printed on the front, with the word FRANKENSTEIN in large block letters underneath. Add to that a thin polystyrene mask, with a rubber band that was guaranteed to break before you got home with the loot and a far too narrow mouth opening that cut your tongue every time you tried to talk, and it’s easy to see I wasn’t missing much by passing on the mass-produced monster togs. Not to mention the fact that, if you had to have the name of the monster you were Trick-or-Treating as stamped on your chest in order for others to identify you, then it wasn’t much of a costume.
No, for my cousin, my brother, and me, only homemade costumes would do. As I’ve mentioned previously in this column, my usual alter-ego was a vampire; smooth, scary, but most of all cheap ‘n’ easy. But that wasn’t the only creature I was capable of pulling together on a $2.00 budget. I could be a very convincing zombie, with some fake blood, some mud and dirt for that crusty, just-dug-my-way-out-of-a-hole look, and some tattered clothes for the basic raw materials. Once I was “Dr. Death,” complete with saw, stethoscope, and blood-soaked lab coat.
Once costuming was out of the way, then the hunt began for pillowcases. This was before the days of fancy manufactured bags, buckets, and pails for the collection of our Trick-or-Treating loot. We had two options—paper grocery sacks, which were tough to carry and prone to tearing; and pillowcases. Pillowcases were strong, they were large, and they were convenient. There was only one problem with them. They were my mother’s.
There was no chance of us using her good linen, of course … we knew enough not to even try that. But like everyone, we had some old, faded, stained, ragged sheets and pillowcases in the back of the closet. We had precisely three cases with enough structural integrity to carry a load of candy: one was white, one avocado green, (hey, it was the ‘70’s, after all …) and one a flowered print. You did not want to Trick-or-Treat carrying a sack with flowers printed all over it … at least, not where I grew up.
Our preparations complete, we would set out on our route with the resolve of Caesar's legions off to vanquish the Gauls. The ritual was the same from year to year, never varying. We would wait until it was dark, and then head out. We would then immediately turn around and ring our own doorbell, shouting “TRICK-OR-TREAT!” when my mother opened the door. She would grumble, but nonetheless dropped a few pieces of candy in each of our sacks. Then the adventure would begin in earnest.
For those readers who are parents of young children; no, our mothers and fathers weren’t exceedingly neglectful or careless of their offspring. That was a different time, and only babies went Trick-or-Treating before sundown, or accompanied by their parents. We knew our neighborhood, and felt completely safe and comfortable in it … even at night. That confidence was doubled on Halloween, when we always traveled in a pack, constantly crossing paths with other, similar packs doing the same. As we passed we would hail each other, like old-fashioned sailing ships meeting far out at sea. We would exchange information on the houses we had visited; who was giving out the good stuff, who was tossing out the cheap crap, who wasn’t handing out anything at all. It was a cooperative hunt, and like wolves word would’ve traveled swiftly of any threat to the pack.
Quite frankly, it never occurred to us that there could be any threat … at least, not the immediate kind. We had all heard the stories about razor blades and broken glass in treats, of course, and our parents always told us not to eat anything before they checked it out. We never were overly concerned about that, however. Personally, I thought that was just an excuse to give the adults first crack at their favorite treats.
Once we had thoroughly covered the neighborhood we would stop somewhere, typically the 7-11 just down the street, and take stock of the night’s haul. Seldom were we satisfied with the results of our officially sanctioned panhandling, but there’s a fine line between persistence and obnoxiousness, and we usually tried not to cross it. Contrary to our parent’s instructions, we would eat a few pieces of candy while deciding on our next move. Occasionally, we would have some change in our sacks, from people too busy or too disinterested to shop for candy, and sorting that out was a high priority. As always at that age, if I had 25¢ to my name, it was going to be spent on a comic book … ordinarily, it would be Batman, Action Comics, or The Flash, but not on Halloween. On Halloween it had to be Ghosts, or House of Mystery, or The Unexpected. Not that I didn’t buy those titles throughout the year, but they were must-haves to cap off the perfect Halloween night.
When we finally did straggle on home, we would camp in front of the TV, watching a holiday-appropriate Creature Feature on one of the local stations, as we munched happily on our Halloween bounty. My dachshund would throw herself protectively on the sack beside me, snarling menacingly at anyone who dared approach it—especially my little sister. This never failed to earn her a treat; butterscotches a particular favorite, though she also had a fondness for Mary Jane’s. The sight of her working her way through a piece of peanut butter taffy was guaranteed to bring laughs.
All too soon, the night would end. We would be sent upstairs to bathe and prepare for bed, and as we scrubbed the residue of fake blood and Hershey’s miniatures off ourselves, another Halloween would officially draw to a close. Those days are more than forty years in the past now, and I’ve known great joys in my life since then, as well as the heartaches that all of us are familiar with.
But I’ve never known pure happiness like Halloween nights when I was a child.