Grab a warm sweater or safe blanket and sit thee down fore thine flickering computer screens, dear friends, for I am about to weave a bone-chilling tale, the likes of which may well travel like a demon through your dial-up Internet service and petrify you in your very home.
This account shall take you to a horrifying land where forbidding shrieks of terror can be heard from every direction. Where dead souls roam the earth, dragging trails of blood, unaware of the howls produced beyond shallow graves by nearby corpses. Where a pungent stench is the aroma of the embalmed being reanimated to breathe new life. Where decomposed, undead phantoms and waist-high ghouls walk hand in hand with Strawberry Shortcake and Batman.
If any brave soul out there has such gigantic cojones that they are daring to continue reading this, I can only presume that even those lionhearted mortals have long since shit their pants in quaking fearfulness. Yeah, I’m a real good writer. Don’t worry about it.
The foreboding landscape I speak of is a dreadful, barren wasteland known not as Transylvania in the 1600’s, but rather shockingly as suburban Middletown, Kentucky. The date of this ghastly nightmare is 1970-something. I don’t remember exactly. Seems like it happened about once a year around this time.
When I was a kid, Halloween was the shit.
It fell on the scale somewhere between a major event and a neighborhood production. The night was filled with things to see, hear and eat. Some people would elaborately decorate their houses with spiderwebs on the handrails and grave stones in the front yard. Others would put stereo speakers in the windows and play records of scary sound effects like wolves howling, creaking doors, demonic laughter and swirling winds.
Once the knocks on the front door started just after dinner time, the flow of kids never stopped. (“Was that the doorbell? Well, I’ll be! It ain’t even dark out yet.”)
Our neighborhood was packed with kids in crazy costumes every Halloween night. Going from house to house, each opening door was greeted with the familiar refrain in a chorus of little kid voices: “Trick or treat!” Ninety-nine percent of the time it was a treat in the form of candy.
On rare occasions it was both a trick and a treat. An adult dressed as a zombie or the Frankenstein monster would be hiding in the bushes, waiting until some unsuspecting and defenseless children dressed as Rainbow Brite and GI Joe were just inches away. At just the precise moment, all it took was a spontaneously shouted “Boo!” to scare the living shit outta all them little bastards.
For American adults who dress up for Halloween in modern times, it’s all about the ironic homemade costume. Something timely will do. This year, presumably “Dead Michael Jackson” will be popular.
In recent years, I’ve seen a bloodied Sigfried & Roy with an attached stuffed tiger, a human-sized iPod, and a blood-covered Dexter. Margot Tenenbaum and Osama Bin Laden are often around. Vampires, zombies, hillbillies and dead Kennedys are timeless get-ups. Maybe the scariest costume last year was Sarah Palin.
Among the adults, you can always expect to see Britney Spears in her schoolgirl outfit and a few sexy nurses. Enough can’t be said for the opportunity Halloween presents for girls to dress like sluts. A lot of “ladies” take advantage of this night to let out their inner exhibitionism.
The weeks following Halloween are high-season for social networking sites. I don’t have any statistics on this, but my guess is that the number uploaded photos and page views probably goes through the roof. “Holy shit! Did you see Brad’s girlfriend in that Daisy Duke costume? I tagged it, bro.”
Back in the 70’s, more often than not, we dressed up in ready-made costumes bought at a local store like Ayr-Way or TG&Y. You can see a prime example of some of these top-quality disguises in this considerably-less-than-high-definition image from Halloween 1973.
Posing in our Middletown living room in front of the Sears & Roebuck console phonograph are my brother (a call center management consultant) as Satan; my sister (a violin luthier and repair specialist) as Raggedy Ann; and me (an amateur Swedish picnic planner) on the right as like a cat or something. Our names are written on the huge, plastic treat bags. Plastic bags are always great to keep around your kids.
Behind my brother on the left is a JVC 8-track deck and behind my sister on the right is a hand-painted family heirloom vase that we lived in constant fear of knocking off the stereo when horseplay and roughhousing commenced.
Those costumes were exactly as Jerry Seinfeld described them in his stand-up act: ill-fitting, pajama-style outfits accompanied by plastic masks with tiny air holes. These masks are held on one’s head by the world’s thinnest rubberband that is stapled to the mask. It never fit right and that rubberband/staple combo had an average lifespan of 8 minutes.
Inevitably, it was cold on Halloween night so you had to wear a coat over your costume. Reflectors started getting popular as urban legends and local news programs convinced parents to live in fear of everything, not just mummies. I can think of nothing more frightening than The Hulk wearing a winter coat. Count Dracula with reflective tape on his sneakers… why, I can hardly type this right now due to the fact that my hands are trembling in fear.
Speaking of Indians, like a lot of cool things in America, Halloween was also “borrowed” from someone else’s culture. Maybe the scariest thing about Halloween is that it is originally Irish. (sh-sh-shud-d-der) All those red-haired ghosts on their way to… never mind… The Irish heritage certainly would account for the carved pumpkin heads being called jack o’lanterns.
Those other turkeys in the picture are kids from our neighborhood. I don’t want to brag or name drop, but Echo Bridge Drive had a pretty menacing, kick-ass posse going around every October 31st. In your face, Brookgreen!
The candy ruled. Well, most of the candy ruled. I remember there were always some cheap asses (“old people”) who would hand out these lumps of some kind of bullshit candy that were individually wrapped in black or orange wax paper. They were like butter candy or something. I don’t know anybody who liked them. They made Werther’s Originals seem like Pop Rocks and tequila.
Some assholes would hand out apples or “healthy snacks.” Whatever, squares. Go back to Russia. Occasionally, a house would gave out money. Spare change! I’m not making this up. (“Um, despite how cheap my costume is, I’m not homeless. My dad has a good job and he’s standing right over there with the flashlight.”)
On a holiday like Christmas, the kids were always comparing what everybody got, and somebody always got outdone. It wasn’t like that for Halloween. We all went to the same houses and we all came home with pretty much the same giant bag of candy. Strangely, I haven’t seen any conservatives opposing Halloween because of this communist equality streak.
When you got back to the house with all your loot, the trading would begin. Reese’s and all the Hershey’s candies were always popular. I really liked the Krackel bars and Hershey’s Special Dark, but I wasn’t really into Mr. Goodbar, so there would be some bartering in the house to get the best assortment. Homemade cookies made it into the mix, too, but still, nobody ever wanted those black and orange wax paper things. They were the Halloween equivalent of giving someone a fruitcake at Christmas.
Over the past week, I polled of six of my Swedish friends about Halloween. All six of these Swedes are young adults in their twenties or thirties.
The poll consisted of one simple question: How many times have you dressed up for Halloween in your life?
If I had asked this of my American friends of similar ages, the answers would probably range from “15 times” to “every year.” For some people, like my brother and his wife (that’s him as Colonel Sanders), I may even get a number higher than the respondent’s age.
Two of the six Swedes I polled answered “never” and the other four answered “once.” That’s a total of four times during the entire lifetimes of six adults. So, combined, it’s four times in about 175 years.
For all the ways the popular cultures in America and Sweden are the same – television, movies, music, comedy and a number of common holidays – Halloween has sadly been left out of the mix in Sweden.
Isn’t it odd that a country which suffers through months of cold darkness – a foggy and mysterious land, where the sun has shone through the clouds nary a few minutes in as many weeks, and whose streets are crawling with vampires – hasn’t embraced this night of terror?
Perhaps Swedish people feel that if you’re already a vampire there’s no need to put on a costume and act scary. Then again, I guess you don’t see a lot of American kids dressing up as little witches and old men for Easter.
On Drottninggatan (“Queen Street”) in central Stockholm, there is a giant inflated ghost hanging above the street with a banner that reads, “Have a fun Halloween.” That’s a step in the right direction. And I got excited Friday night when I was out in Stockholm and I saw some teens and twenty-somethings dressed up. Get this: some of them were dressed as vampires. Shocking.
One girl had the most amazing fangs I have ever seen and she was wearing some of those hypnotic Marilyn Manson contacts. She even hissed at me when I walked by. It’s kind of fuzzy after that. The next thing I remember, I woke up in the train, feeling very weak and I got a text message that Erika was eliminated from Swedish Idol. (Didn’t much care for her anyway. We live in a Tove and Eddie house.) God, my neck hurts.
In America, it seems that Halloween has been making a bit of a resurgence. That makes me happy because Halloween is responsible for some of my most awesome childhood memories. Part of why it was cool was because it wasn’t actually a holiday. Nobody is off school or work for it, so if it fell during the week, you were allowed to go out in the neighborhood when it was dark outside. Also if it was on a school day, there was a chance that there would be a Halloween party at school and everyone would wear their costumes to school. It was all just extra fun.
I’m pretty sure it happened everywhere in the United States, but I know for sure that in my neighborhood Halloween came to a screeching halt in 1982. That year, the whole spectacle was essentially non-existent.
In late September and early October of 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died because the Tylenol pain reliever pills they took had been tampered with and poisoned with cyanide.
Halloween has always been the source of endless urban legends – everything from people putting razor blades inside apples (bad enough that you get an apple) to kidnapping children – but almost none of it was ever true. These seven deaths from product tampering, occurring just a few weeks before Halloween, sent a shockwave across America and shattered a lot of whatever innocence was still left after the 60’s.
On the night of Halloween 1982, many houses in our neighborhood were dark and very few kids were out trick-or-treating. There were really only a handful knocks on the door. Halloween was never the same.
1974: My brother as a cowboy, neighbor as a skeleton, me as the Demon of Hell. Note the Cincinnati Reds helmet on the jack o’lantern.
There is an unforgettable Halloween scene in the Stephen Spielberg movie E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, in which the alien is being hidden, disguised as a ghost under a sheet. E.T. is as bewildered by the bizarre world he sees through the two eye holes, as any newcomer would be if unfamiliar with Halloween.
Coincidentally, that film was released in December 1982. The Halloween sequence had already been filmed by the time the Tylenol murders occurred and muted the festivities down to something decidedly less eye-catching than what’s in the movie. I’ve often wondered if the film would have been any different had it been filmed a little later.
Subsequent years have seemed to gradually improve the level of participation in Halloween, but I think a whole generation or two of Americans missed out on how thrilling it was when I was a kid. That’s why it makes me happy that it seems to be picking up steam again. I especially think a bunch of holiday-loving, creative people like the Swedes will be able to do some extraordinary things with it.
The Chicago tampering crime, incidentally, remains unsolved today (they “believe” they know who did it), so we may never know the name of the A-hole who ruined Halloween. Maybe I’m being too hard on this person. I mean, whoever did it, they didn’t intentionally spoil Halloween for millions of children. They only wanted to secretly murder innocent people who had headaches. I guess there’s no harm in that, right?