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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Halloween Memories

When it comes to Halloween, I was a lucky kid. Certainly a lot luckier than kids since then—and that’s not just the bitter grumblings of an aging GenXer. You see, I grew up at the tail end of the Golden Age of Halloween, when October 31st was all about kids. Unlike today, when adults—perhaps longing for their childhoods—have co-opted it, and a paranoid media has robbed it of its innocence.

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.

This post was my contribution to a much more extended article on the topic of Halloween Memories by The League of Tana Tea Drinkers that was published yesterday. Read it here.


Will Errickson said...

Great stuff. I can still almost smell the plastic of those Ben Cooper costumes, still recall climbing into them and finding the legs entirely too short, and how the rubber band on the masks would tangle and pull your hair. If I recall correctly over the years I was Batman, Darth Vader, and a Sleestak from Land of the Lost. Good times, the '70s!

cindy said...

yeah, halloween was great fun as a kid...good memory lane trip, b-sol! i always made my costume and remember making the headless horseman one year. i have made my kids costumes for years now too!

Anonymous said...

RayRay - Great post. Brought me back to my trick or treating days. To be honest, I always felt at least a little self conscious dressing up and going door to door. But I think that was due to be then shy nature.

I also think you are correct about adults today wanting to relive their Halloween childhoods, dressing up and going to parties, etc. But Halloween, from what I know, was not always just for kids, and represented a feast for all at some spiritual level. Perhaps the triviality of a children's free candy day is cycling back to a channelling of the spiritual world for one night into the world of the living?

B-Sol said...

You were shy??

But yeah, Halloween wasn't always strictly a kids' holiday. But it became that at some point after WWII, with the baby boom. The 1950s saw the rise of Halloween the way we knew it as kids. Now, it seems to be going back to the way it was in the 19th century and earlier--sort of a day for adults to be a little silly. That's why I referred to it as a modern-day Renaissance of sorts.

Gray Witch said...

Yea, I used to go out in the 70's and early 80's and it's nothing like that now. My mother though lives in a small subdivision in VA and they get quite into the spirit there, but they all know each other for the most part.

Anonymous said...

Im live in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago, where growing up in the early 80's was a goldmine of Halloween fun. Sadly, that time has passed, and now my parents get all of 10 trick-or-treaters to their house each year. I thought the magic was gone forever. That is until I made my way down to the south suburb of Beverly this year to take my daughter trick-or-treating with her cousins. I couldnt believe my eyes! It was like I got into a time machine and went back to 1984! Parades of children up and down the streets in costume. Families pulling radio flyers behind them, lugging the mountains of candy their children collected. Every single home with the door open, eagerly passing out candy to the kids. Garages open to reveal little home made haunted houses. It was truly amazing. The true Halloween spirit still exists.

B-Sol said...

Encouraging to hear!

sfdoomed said...

Great post. I was talking to my wife about this topic a couple of weeks ago (around Halloween). I used to LOVE the holiday, since in coincided with everything horror--spooky houses, dead trees, etc. I was always a zombie or some sort of monster. And I absolutely loved when someone took the time to make some sort of haunted house in their garage. It's too bad kids today miss out on Halloween like that, just the way they are missing out on good comic books and records (almost exclusively adults who still buy that stuff).

Anonymous said...


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