Last Halloween a lone trick-or-treater thumped on our door, a cute little girl dressed like a Bob the Builder, complete with a work belt, electric drill and construction hardhat.
“Happy Halloween,” she chirped, artfully presenting her proud papa’s business card. He was standing just off the porch, owner of a home improvement firm based in Vass, using the country’s second most popular commercial holiday to scare up a little foot trade. Tough times demand creative solutions, even if it means turning your tyke into a walking billboard.
My wife was so charmed she took their card and placed it on the refrigerator.
I was so excited to see an actual trick-or-treater on our doorstep I dumped half a punch bowl of candy into her bag — my reaction, as it were, to being in the midst of an apparent Great Halloween Recession.
Though our pleasant old house sits a mere block from the Weymouth estate on one of the prettier streets of the neighborhood, we’re several blocks from where the real Halloween action takes place over on Indiana and Massachusetts avenues.
Over yonder — so close but so far away — groups of ghosties and Princess Leias and Lion Kings, I’m told, traipse across yards and driveways while their parents tag along with flashlights and Thermoses, chatting with clusters of neighbors and keeping watch like mobile sentries.
Astounding as it may seem, over the five years I’ve lived in Southern Pines, Bob the Builder notwithstanding, I have yet to see a live costumed soul afoot on Halloween.
Yet every year it’s the same routine, an exercise in sentimental Halloweening. As the third week of October hovers into view, I optimistically set off down the aisles of Harris Teeter in a fog of happy self-delusion, unable to stop myself from snapping up bags of mini-Butterfingers and Baby Ruths in anticipation of a night of the living dead at our door, recalling my own happy Halloween adventures as man and boy, parent and prankster.
As you may have guessed, I dearly love Halloween, everything about it — the crazy costumes, the flood of candy I’d never eat any other time, the lighted jack o’lanterns, and the feeling of something deliciously spooky in the air. But alas, in these parts at least, the holiday has turned out to be more hollow than hallow.
“Where the heck are all the neighborhood kids?” I asked a friend with small children on the heels of another dispiriting evening of Halloween no-shows. In its wake, I put on five pounds from the Baby Ruths alone.
“I think they all go to parties at the country club and churches now,” she pertly explained. “You know how protective parents are these days. They prefer organized events where they can control food intake — I mean, peanut allergies are everywhere — and everybody stays safe. I understand some malls and stores even hold their own Halloween parties so kids can party while parents shop.”
She added a touch wistfully, “I do miss the trick or treaters that used to come to our door. It was always such fun to see the different costumes. As a kid, I remember staying out till ten o’clock even on a school night. But now we just turn in early.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Is nothing scary sacred anymore? Early to bed on Halloween night? Perish the thought and pass the Snickers bars! Read my caramel-apple-coated lips, people: We who grew up worshipping this cheap painted ghoul of a holiday like miniature pagans-in-training simply cannot permit Halloween to be taken hostage by Walmart party-planners and nervous helicopter parents!
True, this world’s an uncertain and sometimes frightening proposition, though I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t depriving our children the opportunity to grow up learning how to discern real danger — even evil — by allowing them to venture forth on their own into the darkened streets rather than scaring ourselves (and them) to death with media-fanned horror stories of child abductions, distant murders and plagues of pedophiles. The obscene public frenzy surrounding the Casey Anthony murder trial says as much about our insatiable appetite for quick vengeance as it does justice, a real-life Circus Maximus that made the hokey horror films of the 1960s look like child’s play. Given a choice between facing the Bride of Frankenstein or an indignantly frothing Nancy Grace, swearing vengeance on an acquitted mother, I’d take my chances with the spooky bride any old day.
A little fright quickens the blood and is good for the soul, but a quick glimpse of the typical movie fare aimed at impressionable teenage minds at your local cinemaplex these days provides a stronger clue why paranoia weighs so fiercely on the average suburban parent’s mind. Ironically, the 1978 release of the movie Halloween — in which escaped mental patient Michael Myers stalks his hometown killing people on Halloween — produced a megafranchise of ten so-called “slasher” films that were more graphic and violent than anything that preceded them, launching a new genre of horror films that aim to be more ghastly and mind-numbing than the one before it. A foreign movie that shows a woman’s bare breasts or two people making love earns absolute censure from the movie ratings nitwits, yet a teen horror pic with heads exploding like piñatas or someone decapitating his victims with a chain saw is, well, just clean good fun.
Not to put too fine a point on the fine line between fun and fright, the one story in my journalism vita I regret writing concerned a troubled young man in western Massachusetts who, holed up in his bedroom and besotted with the “Halloween” canon, donned a hockey mask and set forth to be Michael Myers one Halloween, stabbing a young girl to death. The police blamed the parents. The parents blamed the kid’s shrink, who assured them the movie was harmless fantasy.
And I blame Hollywood for ruining an otherwise innocent night of fun.
The ancient origins of All Hallows Eve, after all, have little or nothing to do with violence of any kind — just a few spooky pranks at worst. The Celtic tribes of Druidic Ireland made bonfires of their harvest remains to celebrate the end of the growing season and offer prayers for the beginning of the “long night” of winter, dancing and feasting and paying grateful homage to ancestors on a night when the veil between the living and dead was believed to be at its thinnest, allowing spirits both kindly and mischievous to return briefly to earth.
The celebration of “Samhein” was merely one of four seasonal “fire” observances meant to seek guidance from departed ancestors. To avoid being recognized by certain less charitable spirits on the eve of what eventualy became All Hallows Day, however, people donned masks and elaborate costumes made from animal skins and plants. They also placed bowls of food outside their doors to discourage frisky spirits from unhinging gates and removing livestock to other pastures, overturning buckets and other “tricks.”
The actual origins of trick or treating may also date to All Souls parades in 18th century England when poor families would beg food from wealthy landowners, many of whom provided “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers for their departed relatives.
Ireland’s potato famine in 1864 helped send the observance of Halloween to the United States in the form of spontaneous celebrations where young people dressed up and went house to house begging for food and treats. By the 1900s, the holiday had been shorn of its religious connotations and broadly adopted by mainstream Americans, largely becoming a secular celebration meant for children, an occasion for parades, fall festivals and apple-bobbing parties. Newspapers editorialized about the wholesomeness of community-wide Halloween events. Public campaigns against vandalism effectively wiped out much of the tricks associated with the holiday.
Is it a coincidence that after Hollywood hijacked Halloween and made it into one big slasher film, public perceptions of the holiday spawned daylight observances and even resulted in canceled trick or treating in some towns?
The town where we lived in Maine for two decades, on the other hand, had a completely charming annual Halloween celebration that began around five o’clock on Halloween evening when costumed kids and parents from surrounding villages and towns gathered to march through the center of town, making noise and delighting the hundreds who turned out to watch. Local merchants joined in by inviting grade schoolers to paint up their shop windows ‚— competing for prizes — and local high school band members made up a “scary” marching band that rivaled anything you’d see in New Orleans at Mardi Gras. The whole thing ended at a local community center, where punch and cake were served and a small mountain of candy freely distributed. Talk about a fun fright night. I still have a photo of my two as a princess and lion in their debut hike through town, and another taken some years later of my daughter and me in Halloween mufti as “Dracula and Daughter.”
That’s why I had high Halloween hopes when we moved to a beautiful neighborhood in Southern Pines five years ago, believing this town — rightfully admired for its many other seasonal events — would do the holiday up right.
Alas, it’s not to be. American spend an estimated $7 billion on its second-favorite, and more than a third of all candy purchased happens during Halloween week, but you wouldn’t know it from the ghost town that’s our street on Halloween night.
For a time this autumn, I considered dressing up like a grumpy old Dracula and stalking the streets to offer five dollar bills and free candy to any roaming souls I happened to encounter, though my wife assured me this would only result in her having to come up with bail money along with the Butterfingers.
Instead, we’re having two sets of friends over to pass a quiet evening at the supper table. She’s planning to serve Mummy Meatloaf and Pumpkin Chicken Pot Pie, with “Dirt” cake and bat cookies for dessert.
If you and your tyke happen to find your way to our lonesome door, with or without the business card, don’t be surprised if I make you come in and have a bite. PS