I am on the road this week on a new adventure with Robyn and Lola the pup. With “All Hallows’ Eve” taking place this past Tuesday, it seems to me an appropriate time to reprise this seasonal chestnut.
Every year about this same time, television stations roll out their catalogues of scary movies to help celebrate Halloween. It has been a tradition as far back as I can recall, and at my age, believe me, this tradition covers a lot of ground.
For example, my personal faves from the 1950’s would include Don Siegel’s paranoid nightmare, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the atmospheric Night of the Hunter, where a psychopath preacher, portrayed by Hollywood leading man Robert Mitchum at his creepiest, roams the countryside in pursuit of innocent children. And in 20 Million Miles to Earth, thanks to the cutting-edge special effects magic of Ray Harryhausen, a space hitchhiking Venusian lizard grows to gigantic size, then attacks the City of Rome! For weeks thereafter, fear that a rapidly growing outer space lizard could be hiding in my closet haunted my dreams. Looking back, whether the monsters came from outer space or were an unfortunate byproduct of atomic energy, the culprit in these films was often science itself run amok.
In the 1960’s the focus of the best horror movies shifted from science to the human mind. In 1960, as a 10-year-old, my parents would not permit me to see Psycho, but I vividly recall catching the coming attraction to Hitchcock’s film, punctuated by Bernard Hermann’s jarring musical score and the image of blood swirling down a shower drain, during a Saturday matinee double feature of the latest Roger Corman/William Castle schlock horror show.
IMBd’s top five horror films of the 70s –The Exorcist, Jaws, Alien, Halloween, and Dawn of the Dead— proves the genre remained in good hands, though by then I was a young adult and less easily impressed. I suppose every generation has its favorites, vulnerable soft spots fairly oozing shock, blood, and gore, preserved in our memories, only to rise again each Halloween when the moon is full!
So, with Halloween fast approaching, today I resurrect a post that appeared here last year around this time. Trick or treat? You decide.
Before this year, I would have told you that Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. A celebratory, non-denominational kid pleasing holiday, replete with costumes, scares, magic, and mystery. And for older teenagers and young adults, Halloween offers a good excuse to let your hair down, encouraging sexy or silly frolic that can last beyond the witching hour.
My mother took immense pride in making hand-fashioned costumes for my older sister and me. She cobbled together wonderful and inventive outfits. She might dye everyday clothing to create distinctive garb that could be fun and colorful or dark and spooky. She accessorized the transformed wardrobe with a seemingly endless array of ordinary household items – wire hangers fashioned into bug antennae, papier-mâché hats or crowns, informative cardboard signs she’d attach to wooden sticks (“take me to your leader”), applied makeup whiskers and facial hair, or talcum powder sprinkled on our heads for an aging effect.
One year I could be a one-eye, one-horn, flying purple people eater; the next, the Pied Piper, leading a trailing string of “charmed” rubber mice attached by a thin wire to my cape (a cut and dyed bed sheet). At risk of dating myself, I remember that one year my older sister, costumed as a CARE package, brought home the prize for best costume that our elementary school teachers used to award. Win or lose, every student celebrated Halloween by leaving school a few minutes early to participate in an annual costume parade before adoring throngs of parents, some with preschool toddlers and babies in tow. I’d keep a sharp eye for my mom, my aunt, a familiar neighbor standing in the crowd, grinning like a dumb kid while waving my arms in greeting the whole parade route.
After the school parade, my friends and I would dash home, grab paper grocery bags, and meet up on the corner to “trick or treat” in earnest. Then, until it turned dark, and the streetlights would come up reminding us that it was time to head back home, we kids ruled the streets. Older sisters were expected to accompany the youngest revelers as they methodically went door-to-door.
Indeed, we kids felt perfectly safe to trick or treat without hovering, omnipresent adults haunting our every step. Back then, parents seemed not worried in the slightest that there might be lunatics living among us, who took sick pleasure serving up adulterated “treats” to children. In fact, the first time I heard a television news report about a parent discovering a needle hidden inside their child’s taffy apple, I already was a teenager and long past such a “kid thing” as trick or treat.
Nonetheless, as a grown man I still enjoy observing the trappings of Halloween, especially now, one year removed from the height of the pandemic. I had been looking forward to the return of kids in costume, and the long-delayed resumption of the time-honored traditions of my own youth. I eagerly anticipated the arrival of kids of all shapes and sizes, who would soon be ringing my doorbell, demanding treats. In my mind, I could hear the gate slam while the boldest among them bounds up the outside steps onto the landing, simultaneously pushing both upstairs and downstairs doorbells, then freezing momentarily, surprised by Lola the Halloween pup barking excitedly inside the closed vestibule.
As always, my plan was to open the door while wearing my mask –nothing too horrible, mind you—so that after experiencing the briefest shock, both the bold kids and the little ones shyly holding back in trepidation one step below the landing, shout in unison, “Trick or treat!” And everybody –the kids, me, their beaming parents standing outside the wrought iron gate– smiles and laughs. Finally, I give every costumed individual who dares approach my threshold an approving once-over, then hand him or her a generous individual portion of booty. The first one says, “thanks!,” the others follow suit, as they quickly file back to the sidewalk through my gate. The horde regathers, moves on to its next victim.
At least that was the plan.
Sunday afternoon, after I dropped off Robyn, I hurried home to prepare for a steady stream of costumed tricksters. First, I placed a welcoming Halloween sign on the fence. Next, I removed the treats from my pantry and placed the unopened bag into a large bowl strategically located nearby the front door for quick access.
Then I waited for the sounds of my gate closing, the trampling feet of the revelers rushing up the stairs followed by multiple rings of the doorbells. And then I waited some more.
As I await the arrivals, I observe there is an overcast sky, but the weather forecast does not call for any rain. The temperature feels below normal, made even cooler by a brisk breeze. The air would feel cool against any exposed skin, of course, but not so cold as to detour an eager kid on the prowl for candy. Heck, I can recall trick and treat while the wind howled wild and it poured rain. Once or twice, it was so unseasonably cold that the Halloween sky spit snow.
So eventually, I leave my home and step outside onto the porch to see what is happening on the block. From my vantage point I see packs of kids and parents gathered at the far end of the block on both sides of the street.
I also observe two neighbors sitting on the steps of their porch. I leave my property and approach them. I ask, where are all the kids? The neighbors tell me that the kids have come and gone. It’s only the remnants I am seeing gathered at the far end of the street. I wonder aloud, “don’t kids ring doorbells these days?” And to my surprise, I learn the answer, in our neighborhood at least, is no. In 2021, it appears the preferred approach to Halloween trick or treat now is to leave treats in a bowl outside of the curtilage, trusting the kids to only grab a fair share as they scurry past. Apparently, many parents prefer it this way, believing that it’s the only safe and prudent practice in such unusual times.
But I persist. Isn’t the whole point of the phrase “trick or treat” an implicit threat of mischief for the adult who fails to pony up when the little darlings come ‘round his door seeking treats? One of the neighbors shrugs his shoulder, says nothing. The other neighbor answers dumbly, “I dunno.” They look at each other, stand up, and step back inside.
I am deflated. I walk back home, remove the Halloween sign, lock my gate, step inside and close my door for the evening.
It is now early November, and I am staring at the unopened bag of delicious Halloween candy that is still sitting exactly where I put it on October 31. All 150 pieces, including such personal favorites as Kit Kat, Mounds, Reese Cups, Peppermint Patties, Musketeers, Snickers, M&Ms —plain and peanut. My mouth is watering in anticipation. I hear the bag calling to me: “Hey, fat boy, just tear me open. Don’t you love me anymore?”
As I say, before this year, I would have unequivocally stated that Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. Now, as I tear through another Kit Kat wrapper, Halloween’s magic spell feels broken and in need of repair.