Boo (hoo).

Wednesday, October 31st, 2001

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.

Happy Halloween.

Comments

1

I am from a small town in Indiana county pa. when i was a child ,we had cornwallis night ,the night before halloween. we would throw corn at all the houses in our town. Since i have wondered how that practice ever came about? can anyone tell me about the origan of this practice?

2

I remember corning and was looking online to see if any others had heard of it! I lived in Terre Haute too, from ages 8-12, in the late ’60s/early 70’s. T.H. is the only place where I’ve ever heard that corning was done. I agree with you also about the landscape there being so perfect for Halloween, both beautiful and spooky. When I was a child, my parents took us to the nearby Covered Bridge Festival, and we often visited Turkey Run and Shades State Parks. Since then, I’ve often returned to that festival and camped in the area. Now I take my son, too! I can’t imagine a better place to be in October.

Posted by Terry

3

Wow, Turkey Run! That’s funny, just the other day, thoughts of Turkey Run popped into my head for the first time in ages. Such a beautiful, ancient-feeling place…

I’ve only been back to Indiana once since moving away in the early ’80s, but I really treasure the memories of my childhood there. It was such a great place to grow up - your son is very lucky to get to experience it now too!

4

I am from a small town just south of Pittsburgh called Uniontown. We too had a tradition of throwing hard corn at Halloween. We called it "racking". We would gather every friend in the neighborhood and go out at night hitting every house. When we hit a house that had a lot of tin or aluminum siding or awnings it would make a huge racket. It was an accepted thing to do and very few people called the cops. We got our corn from feed fields and feed stores and usually filled paper bags with it. I have always wondered where this tradition got its start.

Posted by ben

5

Corn throwing was a huge Halloween event in my small town in central PA. The poor kids, like me, who couldn’t afford to buy the corn at a feed store or didn’t live near a farm, swept the corn off our neighbors porches so we would have some to throw.

Posted by lisa

6

I was just talking to someone on FB about our childhood experiences and mentioning "corning". Both he and I did it in different towns north of Pittsburgh. It was the most fun running up and down streets throwing and laughing all the way. We would get our corn from the corn fields as well. It is so good to know that others enjoyed the mischief like I did. I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve never found anyone from NC, VA, TN, CO or CA that has ever enjoyed the thrill of corning. I loved reading your blog, it brought back many childhood memories of why Halloween is so special to me as well!! Thanks so much!!

Posted by susan

7

Here on the night before Halloween, I was thinking about the joys of my youth (in the mid-70’s), one of which was corning. Big handfuls of dried corn kernels from nearby corn fields, aimed at the picture windows or the screen doors of the neighborhood houses. Great fun, and a great opportunity to learn how to run like the wind when one of the neighbors took issue with the corning!

Along with TPing houses, and soaping windows (and the occasionally window wax for anyone we considered to be a real a-hole) — that really made Halloween special when we got too old to trick-or-treat.

I grew up in semi-rural western Illinois, 15 miles, more or less from St. Louis.

Posted by Andy

8

In central Pennsylvania, we used to call throwing hard field corn at houses "tick-tacking." There were plenty of fields near the home I grew up in that were planted with field corn. As kids in the late 60’s and early 70’s. we used to go through the fields in late October and pick through what was left after the fields were harvested. We had bags of the stuff that we shucked from the cobs. This was an annual ritual for us. We stored the corn in brown grocery bags until Halloween. It was then that we prowled the rural countryside and roads showering houses and cars with the stuff. The whole goal of course was to provoke someone to stop their car or come out of their house and chase us through the fields - which often happened. Out running someone’s dog left out to chase us was a special treat!

Posted by Ken

9

Wow, I was just telling a friend about this and he thought I was crazy. I grew up North of Pittburgh in the 70s and corning was a yearly ritual that until now never dawned upon me that it was only a local custom. My friend, from upstate NY, had never heard of it before. As so many others did, me and my friends would go out at dusk, raid the local cornfields and shuck corn until we had bags and bags of kernels. We’d let it dry out for a couple weeks, then on hell night, we’d fill our pockets and let loose all over town, hitting houses and cars. I remember we started to get ambitious as we got older and ended up with marked depots along our long route… we had prepositioned buckets hidden enroute so we could reload without going the whole way back to home base. Those were the days, our only fear was an errant loose dog or an angry farmer with a gun full of salt pellet. Nowadays, I’m sure the farmers have far deadlier weapons… LOL

10

I was talking with some old friends about Halloween’s past in Central Indiana. We corned houses, soaped windows and rapped on windows with a home-made contraption fashioned from a notched thread spool, a string and a nail for a handle. You would wrap the string around the spool, hold onto the nail, and hold the spool against the window and pull the string. Makes an awful racket! We couldn’t think what it was called, though. Anyone else ever heard of this? We never egged cars, but I think some of my brother’s friends may have. All we did was good clean harmless fun. I miss those days!

Posted by Elisa

11

omg!!!I am also from Terre Haute and so relived the traditiojns of Halloween in your post…thank you ! I was just talking about corn throwing and no one here in Oklahoma had heard of such a thing!!!! What fun as a child in the late fifties and early 60’S — before it was cool to be a "GANGSTER" : )

Posted by Sharon (Campbell) G

12

We’re from central Ohio and we carried on our parents’ tradition of corning(we are now in our 40’s—they were doing this in the 1950’s). The key is to take the corn off the cob, as my aunt found out in her youth. We also ratcheted with the pencil and the spool up against the window/screen door/aluminum siding. We have brought the corning tradition to the Pacific Northwest and are widening the circle of middle-aged marauders. Another Ohio friend is a proponent of Hallo-weenie-ing, where you decorate(desecrate) peoples’ bushes, porches, and pumpkins with (very cheap) hot dogs.

Posted by Megan

13

I am originally from S.E. Iowa. Corning and soaping we’re very big there also. But I never remember corning cars. Just at houses that generally had the old ‘storm doors’ with the aluminum section on the bottom. Heck of a lot of noise that would make. Soaping was some ‘clean’ fun also, but may have gone away some due to the price of soap bars. As a kid I also remember Trick or Treating where we’d have to go home to off load. My brothers and I would end up with at least a full size brown paper bag with candy. Those were the days.

14

I am from eastern ky and as a teenager in the 70’s , i went corning. Today the tradition is still practiced in the area. Children climb up to the top of a small hill and throw corn on cars passing by. Everyone has become accustomed to having their cars hit with corn around Halloween. So Yes the corning tradition lives on.

Posted by Bev Meade

15

Ok, I’m posting this in 2013 after searching for corning. We corned in Peru, In in the late 70s early 80s also. We always got corn from local fields which were never far and also used paper bags to carry it around in after shucking. I don’t remember the details about how full the bags were but I’m sure one or two of us always had one that was way too heavy when running. I remember a lot of running during halloween after we outgrew the trick or treating…

Posted by Mike

16

Ok, I’m posting this in 2013 after searching for corning. We corned in Peru, In in the late 70s early 80s also. We always got corn from local fields which were never far and also used paper bags to carry it around in after shucking. I don’t remember the details about how full the bags were but I’m sure one or two of us always had one that was way too heavy when running. I remember a lot of running during halloween after we outgrew the trick or treating…

Posted by Mike

17

I am from Mahaffey pa. One time my friends and I were corning. We were throwing at cars from a Christmas tree farm. Someone called the police to tell them about the corning going on. When the state police arrived we all scattered amongst the trees. The policeman shouted for us to come out and show ourselves. One of my friends hiding beneath a tree calmly shouted "there is nobody here but us Christmas trees. The policeman got in his car and left.

Posted by Brett Bloxdorf

18

Was trying to explain corning to my California friends - I remember it from the years I lived in Wmspt PA in the late 70s. Thanks for your amazing blog, you brought back memories of homemade popcorn balls and peanut butter taffy, and proved "corning" was legit!!

19

A great write-up of everything Halloween! I moved from the Netherlands to New England 25 years ago. Did not know a thing about Halloween when I arrived here. I do so love it now. Every day I drive around with a smile on my face, seeing the elaborate decorations in random front yards. So very creative. I think it is better than Christmas! Then there are the slightly over the peak colors of the trees. It is all too beautiful!

20

Grew up in the 70s about 25 miles northeast of Pittsburgh PA. Always went corning every Halloween after trick r treating. Loads of fun for me and my friends! Not sure how or when it started but it has been a tradition in the area for many years. Older brothers would take their younger brothers and then their friends and so on.

Posted by Nick

21

West Burlington, Iowa (along the Mississippi) in the 1960’s—corning galore. And to think our mother taught us! I think it’s a Pennsylvania Dutch (meaning German) tradition that was once originally some kind of old world fertility/harvest celebration. As farmers moved east, this tradition came with them. Corning remains one of my fondest childhood memories.

Posted by Sharon

22

I grew up in Greenfield, Indiana (east central). I’m glad someone else knows what corning is!!!! Great fun at Halloween.

Posted by Tiffany

23

I grew up in NW Pa. - Near Meadville and my friends and I went corning every fall! We had so much fun. Hiding in the fields or weeds and throwing it at the cars and then having to run because some irate adult was ready to kill us for certain! I cannot remember a time when I laughed more than this. It was kind of naughty and dangerous to do, but hey, it slowed some of the cars down for a while! Great fun! Here, I thought we had made up the name.

Posted by Andrea

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