It’s Halloween! Though you’d hardly know it: it’s about 60 degrees here and blindingly sunny - conditions which are not particularly conducive to that creepy Halloween feeling.
But weather or no weather, there seems to be a distinct lack of creepy Halloween feeling around here altogether. I take this seriously because, after Christmas, Halloween has always been my absolute favorite time of the year. The dressing-up, the jack-o-lanterns, the bats and the cobwebby things - I revel in it all. I can very easily convince myself that there is something slightly different in the air on Halloween night. It’s not necessarily a feeling of ghoulies and ghosties wandering about - it’s more like the chill finger of winter touching the back of my neck, reminding me that the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer, and that the things that have been vibrant and alive for months now are rapidly dying and fading away. That’s creepy enough for me.
Unfortunately, I have come to the sad realization that, no matter how hard I try, Halloween these days just cannot live up to my memories of Halloween as a child. This may seem obvious - few real things can live up to our childhood memories of them - but I feel it particularly acutely when it comes to Halloween. Christmas may have lost some of the urgency it had when I was a child, but it’s no less magical to me now. But Halloween… Halloween seems to have had the spirit taken out of it (so to speak).
The main problem here may be that, between the ages of 8 and 11, I lived in Terre Haute, Indiana and got to experience the best Halloweens ever. Halloween in rural Indiana is the archetypal Halloween. I imagine that New England is the only other place on Earth with a Halloween to rival that of the Midwest. I mean, New England is inherently creepy anyway: all those ancient, gnarled trees, those ramshackle barns - that whole Salem witch trial vibe. But the Midwest has got its own inherent creepiness, and it’s incredibly well-suited to Halloween.
Halloween was a big thing in Terre Haute. First of all, there were all the things you got to do at school. Halloween decorations were always made, and scary stories usually had to be written for English lessons. There would always be a Halloween party, and the “room mothers” (parents of kids who had volunteered to do this kind of thing) would show up with orange-frosted cupcakes, pumpkin-shaped cookies and the inevitable orange Kool-Aid. One of the schools I went to in Terre Haute even had a big “costume pageant” where we all got to trundle across the stage in the gym to show off our costumes (usually our mothers’ handiwork).
In the area of costumes, I had it lucky. Not only did my mom make some great costumes for my brother and me (I still have the princess dress she made nearly two decades ago), but my grandmother’s hairdresser rented out handmade costumes as well. Her attic was like heaven to me. It was a treasure trove of costumes of all shapes and sizes, packed onto clothes racks in seemingly endless rows of sparkles and satin and lace. I only got to scrape the surface of all the costumes she had to offer. I got to be a toy soldier, a can-can dancer, a cheerleader (I would have been a belly dancer if I had been big enough to fill the costume).Today I think about that attic with a type of mythical awe.
But outside of the school parties and the costumes, there were other, more mischievous things going on on Halloween. My neighborhood was more or less surrounded by cornfields, and this gave rise to a nasty little Halloween pastime known as “corning." Corning basically involved hiding at the side of a road with bagfuls of hard, dried corn kernels and throwing the corn at passing cars (or just throwing corn at the windows of people’s houses). I was never in a car that was “corned," but I imagine it would be terrifying to drive through a sudden, loud shower of what sounded like tiny pebbles (particularly if you happened to be going around “Dead Man’s Curve” at the time - an evil bend in the road not far from my house).
I also never corned anyone myself, but one year, I, my brother and our friend Mike had great plans to do “something" with corn (probably just throw it at house windows, if anything). For weeks before Halloween, we raided a nearby farmer’s field for dried-up ears of corn. We shucked all the corn into a big paper grocery bag, and we were thrilled as our stash of corn increased until the entire bag was full (and very, very heavy). It’s probably fortunate that our parents got wind of our goings-on before Halloween rolled around. They forbade us from “corning" anyone or anything, so we just poked a hole in the bottom of the paper bag and ran up and down the street with it, trailing corn kernels in our wake. That was no small fun in itself.
Less potentially deadly Halloween pranks included “soaping" (again, of windows) and toilet-papering (of houses and trees). I seem to recall that we had plans for toilet paper as well, but were foiled again by our parents expressly forbidding us to be brats. As it turned out, somebody (it really wasn’t us) toilet-papered some trees in the neighborhood and we got blamed for it anyway - which I think lead my parents to wish that they had just allowed us to go ahead and do what we wanted in the first place.
There were an abundance of pumpkins in the neighborhood. Amazingly, I don’t remember any of them ever getting smashed - that didn’t seem to be a popular pastime. We bought our pumpkins from the “Pumpkin Lady” just down the road (I can’t remember her real name - I always just knew her as the Pumpkin Lady). We would always buy a few pumpkins and carve them into jack-o-lanterns in the kitchen. My parents would wash off the seeds and put them on a baking tray in the oven with some butter and salt. They would crisp up into a delicious snack that was one of the high points of Halloween. The jack-o-lanterns would then go out onto the front doorstep with the pretty ears of Indian corn that my mom would hang on the door, and they would guard our house from all the evil spirits (i.e., kids with soap and corn) that roamed the streets on Halloween night.
There was, of course, trick-or-treating. Despite the fact that there were always warnings about razor blades in apples and candy bars, the trick-or-treating seems particularly innocent to me now. We would walk all around the neighborhood, ringing the doorbells of houses which had left their porch lights on and passing by houses which had turned their lights off. I think everybody knew most everyone else. You went to the houses you knew, and your parents would socialize while you hovered impatiently, eager to get on with the candy-collecting.
It was always fun to get back to the house and go through the treats we had collected - dividing up the sweets, trading this for that - but the candy was never really the big thing for me. The big thing for me was being out at night amongst the rustling cornfields, wandering through the cold autumn air while jack-o-lanterns flickered and leered from doorsteps and windowsills. In fact, the jack-o-lanterns may have been my favorite part of Halloween altogether. To this day, I love jack-o-lanterns. They glow with something more than just candlelight. They have personality. In a way, it makes sense that they should have a kind of power - after all, they really were intended to frighten away the evil spirits. Halloween gives them power; the flame inside of them brings them to life.
In the days that followed Halloween, the jack-o-lanterns would shrivel and pucker, collapsing in on themselves as they rotted away. Then they would be thrown away to make way for the turkeys and Pilgrims’ hats of Thanksgiving, and finally the wreaths and bells of Christmas. But for that one night - Halloween night - those jack-o-lanterns were alive with the very spirit of Halloween. I have a very clear memory of going to bed as a child on Halloween night - a bit sad, perhaps, that the festivities were over, but with the reassuring knowledge that a jack-o-lantern was outside our house, its flame flickering silently in the night. And that memory sums up all that I love about this holiday.