Halloween: A Ghost of a Memory

Everybody knows the movie “A Christmas Story.” My childhood was like that, only around Halloween.

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, Franksville, population 250, with most of us living out in the country. My parents, my sister, and I lived in a house on Fancher Road, a curved old road that was bypassed when the straight County Highway H went through, cutting off Old Fancher Road like an oxbow in a river. All around Fancher Road and the highway were houses with my cousins, my second cousins, and farmers who had been there since just slightly before the dawn of time (farmers do get up early).

Every year on the Sunday before Halloween, our Sunday School class assembled the orange paper boxes for Unicef donations. For Halloween, my sister and I would put on that year’s costumes (cobbled together with scraps from the closets, rubbed coffee-grounds on the face to look like a hobo’s whiskers, or Ace bandages for the Invisible Man), and we’d trudge around the loop of Fancher Road, then down Highway H, a mile or more on a brisk Wisconsin autumn night.

House after house would give us candy bars, suckers, wrapped candies. We’d call out “Trick or treat for Unicef!” and hope the houses would put a few pennies or nickels in our orange boxes. Grandma Turner (who was nobody’s grandma, but such a kind old lady that everybody called her that anyway) spent days making home-made popcorn balls, which she covered in plastic wrap. Trick-or-treaters each got one. Old Mrs Noppe didn’t believe in candy, but she had a little tray of pennies and nickels at the door, and kids could take a few coins as their treats.

My grandfather, Papa, loved giving out apples to the kids. He would go to the orchard, get just the right apples, polish them, put them in a big bowl at the front door for the trick-or-treaters.  Then one year, in the 1970s, warnings went around that creeps were inserting razor blades into apples, and all parents were advised to discard any apples their kids brought home from trick-or-treating. When Papa found out that parents were tossing out his apples, he was deeply hurt.

When we got home on Halloween night, my sister and I would dump our candy into big bowls and then we began our horse-trading, jelly beans for her, peanut-butter cups for me, Heath bars for me, licorice sticks for her.

I loved Halloween.

I grew up, graduated from college, got a job in California, and moved off to the West Coast. In my first autumn there, as a bachelor, living in a small rented house out in a residential neighborhood. I was excited to be the host for the first time, my first Halloween away from home. I bought a few bags of candy, dumped them in a big bowl, which I set at the front door, turned on my welcoming front porch light. This was different from Wisconsin: I didn’t know most of my neighbors, and I certainly wasn’t related to whatever kids would be coming around, but I wanted to carry on the tradition.

After dark, the doorbell rang, and my first group of trick-or-treaters came around; a few minutes later, a second group, a skinny kid in a tux and his little blond-haired sister in a princess costume. I ate dinner, watched TV, ready every ten minutes or so when the doorbell rang. After a dozen trick-or-treaters, there was a skinny kid in a tux and a sister dressed as a princess again.  I was puzzled, because I thought they looked familiar, but couldn’t really remember. I gave them a round of candy.  No more than 15 trick-or-treaters came by, and the doorbell rang again.  It was the skinny kid in the tux again and his sister in a princess costume.  Now there was no question; they were coming back for seconds and thirds.

I grew stern. “You shouldn’t keep coming to the same house,” I said. “That’s not OK.”  The skinny kid looked very guilty, backed away from the porch and apologized. But his sister stood there, her lower lip quivering, and finally she burst into tears. “But there’s nobody else HOME!” she wailed.

I looked up and down my street, dozens of homes in a residential district, and they were *all dark*, front porch lights turned off, window shades drawn. I could see the pale blue glow of televisions behind the curtains, so the people were home—they were just hiding, with their lights off, avoiding the social obligations of Halloween.

I was ticked off. I remembered how much joy I got each year from trick-or-treating, and these people were intentionally pulling up the drawbridge, shutting off their lights, refusing to let all of our neighborhood children enjoy Halloween. I was stunned, disappointed, appalled.

I gave the skinny kid and his princess sister all the candy they wanted.

Next day I saw one of my neighbors, someone I *knew* had been home, but had her porch light turned off. “Why weren’t you there for the trick-or-treaters?” I asked her. She just snorted. “I’m supposed to buy candy to give to kids I barely even know? I don’t think so!”  (And I thought the Grinch only came out at Christmas.)

Really?  You can’t spend ten bucks on some cheap candy to be part of what could be a kid’s highlight for the year? My wonderful Halloween memories were  a terrific formative part of my childhood. I would never take that away from kids.

Now, we make a special big deal of Halloween at our house, not only giving full-sized candy bars but school supplies. We decorate, we dress up, and Rebecca even keeps a tally (over 120 at our maximum—and we live way out in the middle of nowhere).  I write horror fiction, even humorous zombie detective stories, and this is part of my livelihood—to make sure a generation grows up loving Halloween. It’s important. Don’t underestimate the positive effect it can have on a kid.

Happy Halloween everyone.