During the period stretching from the 1950s to the early 1980s, Halloween was a veritable Autumn Wonderland, rivaling even Christmas itself as the best time of year to be a kid. For all you youngsters out there, this meant that the entire holiday existed solely as a means for children to dress up and get free candy. No one was afraid to open their doors, everyone had a giant bowl of treats by the window, and the streets were teeming with hordes of tiny people in cheap plastic masks and jumpsuits.My heyday of trick-or-treating encompassed 1975 through 1986, a little longer than I’m comfortable with admitting (yes, I was a bit of a nancy boy). Those were the closing years of Halloween’s Golden Age, and fortunately I just made it under the wire.
Although my parents suited me up from my very first Halloween, the earliest one I can remember is Halloween 1977, when, at nearly three years of age, I paraded down Bensonhurst’s 67th Street in one of those classic old-school Ben Cooper Superman costumes, the kind with the masks that you couldn’t see or breath through, with elastic bands that snapped with the slightest amount of pressure.
Those cheapo 5-and-10 store costumes were the standard back then. In fact, I can remember the first year I didn’t wear one. That would be in the first grade, when I got decked out in a homemade Dracula costume, complete with vampire makeup applied by my mom. I made a deal with my best friend, who was going out as a giant bat. At the school Halloween party, we pretended to be the same person—I’d disappear, then he’d pop up out of nowhere, as if I had simply transformed myself. Pretty clever for six-year-olds.
That was the same year I got into a schoolyard argument with another friend of mine. We were telling each other what our costumes were going to be. Problem was, the kid came from an Italian household and could hardly speak English. On top of that, he had a speech impediment. Naturally, he became exasperated when I had no idea what “The Oak” was. He even gave me a clue: it was a superhero. Batman, I asked? “No, the Oak.” Spider-Man? “NO. The Oak!” I think it took a good 15 minutes before I figured out it was the Hulk.
But by far, my greatest Halloween regret came the following year, when my mom took the initiative and—knowing my love of Star Wars—tried to surprise me by picking up a costume on her own. What she didn’t take into account was that I had only seen the original. For whatever reason, I had missed out on going to see The Empire Strikes Back the year before. So when she came home with a Yoda costume, I was reduced to tears, since I had no idea who the little guy was! Even worse, she took me down to the store to exchange it, at which point the clerk recommended I go as some obscure character called Boba Fett. I wound up picking C-3PO, which isn’t all that bad, but if I knew then what I know now…
By the fifth grade, I kind of knew I was starting to push it. As I pulled on my Ben Cooper He-Man getup, I’ll be honest and say, for the first time, I felt a little bit silly. That silly feeling, however, was still outweighed by the promise of Runts, Nerds, Pop Rocks, Bottlecaps and Jolly Ranchers by the handful.
But my level of maturity wasn’t the only thing undergoing noticeable change. More and more, there began to creep into the popular consciousness a certain wariness about Halloween. Stories of candy being tampered with, apples containing hidden razorblades and so on had been around long before I was born. But for a variety of reasons, they gained a lot more traction in the early to mid 1980s. I think it had something to do with the infamous rash of Tylenol poisonings in 1982, as well as a rising level of crime in urban centers like New York, where I grew up. Parents were fearing for their kids’ safety, and the media was happily feeding into that fear, perpetuating the myth that trick-or-treating was somehow unsafe.
Still, the good times weren’t quite over yet. I managed to drag the whole costume thing out for another two years. For some reason, I just never felt the urge to take part in that other Halloween activity so many of my friends were hanging up their costumes in favor of by that point, a tradition among kids going back a lot further than the modern commercialized concept of trick-or-treating. We called it “bombing”—pelting property and each other with eggs and shaving cream, mainly. I found it repulsive then, as I do now.
There were more Halloween parties going on in those later years, as we approached being what would now be known as “tweens”. My fondest memory of those was one I attended in the sixth grade—when, dressed as Zorro, I spent most of the afternoon talking over the loud music with the younger sister of one of my classmates, who I developed something of a crush on. Sadly, she died of leukemia less than a year later. To this day, I can’t hear A-Ha’s “Take on Me” without thinking of that party.
When I think back to those days, I can’t help but feel a little sad for my own kids. Now, when we dress them up in their much-better-quality costumes, my wife and I almost feel like we’re in the minority in our neighborhood. Almost gone are the wandering crowds of basket-carrying children. Many parents don’t even bother. Those who do confine their trick-or-treating to the local stores, no longer trusting their own neighbors—who in turn, are more than a little nervous about opening their own doors. It’s much more controlled and confined now. The fear-mongers have won.
Today, it’s the grown-ups who seem to get more excited, tramping around from one masquerade party to the next. It’s as if we’re living in some kind of post-modern Renaissance. Some spend much more time pondering this year’s costume than I ever did as a kid. And yes, I’m not above taking part in it myself. But more than anything else, that’s because I miss those days when Halloween was the most fun day of the year. I guess deep down, we all do.