It was quite dark on a recent evening as my brother and I turned one last corner and drove toward our childhood home. So dark, in fact, that it was difficult to pick out any details beyond house lights and the meager output of dim street lamps. Even so, we simultaneously experienced a moment of wordless confusion that neither of us acknowledged until after the fact: we couldn’t see our house, despite having passed the point by which it should have been visible. And then, as though a tear in the space-time continuum had suddenly been mended, we could.
“Oh, fer God’s sake,” I muttered as the reason became evident. Three doors up the block from our parents, neighbors had constructed an enormous corridor that extended from their front porch to the sidewalk, where the arch of its entrance reached a height of perhaps ten feet. The entire structure was enclosed in sheets of black plastic, and a surrounding assortment of tombstones and faux wrought iron gates made its purpose obvious. These people were very excited about handing out candy for Halloween, and they were determined to make the experience a memorable one for costumed beggars.
By the light of the next morning, it was clear they weren’t the only ones. Though no one in the near vicinity had mounted so audacious a display, there was no shortage of headstones, skulls and various undead that appeared to be emerging from their graves.
Now, if that’s your idea of a good time, then more power to you. I think I would have been right there with you, spreading cobwebs across the bushes and affixing severed head to pikes, back when I was, say, twelve. And far be it from me, notorious among those who know me well for my ostensibly juvenile interests, to judge anyone for their peculiar indulgences. But today’s hyper-sensationalization of Halloween largely leaves me cold.
All of these corpses and zombies moaning through a flashing fog of dry ice and strobe lights renders me bored as a jaded carny at the freak show. For me, it’s the sensory equivalence of a steady junk food diet, like chasing chocolate cake with Orange Crush. Soon you can’t even be sure what’s sweet anymore, and it’s nowhere near as enjoyable as it once seemed.
According to the Halloween Industry Association (that there should even be such a thing!), more than 179 million American consumers are expected to spend a staggering 9.1 billion dollars this year to celebrate the spooky season, with an average layout of $86.13 per participating household. This goes a long way to explaining why it seems like nearly every retail establishment has one or more aisles chockablock with costumes, candy and increasingly elaborate decorations. And why it seems as though you can rarely pass such merchandising without triggering motion sensors that cause witches to cackle and demonic door knockers to issue stern warnings to turn back before it’s too late.
Only one aspect of these ever-growing decor collections appeals to me. I’ve had a life-long fascination with skeletons, and there are skulls and bones aplenty available for purchase this time of year. I’m not quite sure how my interest came about, but it’s definitely anatomical and whimsical rather than ghoulish. Perhaps that’s why I have particular affection for the Mexican take on Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, with its colorful sugar skulls and festive skeletons that always look like they’re having a good time. Walking dead and slasher film villains bore me. But give me a cheerful skeleton, and I’m entertained.
So in that skeletal sense only, I welcome the retail blitzkrieg of modern Halloween. Mostly, though, I find myself nostalgic for the beggar’s nights of my youth and the comparatively paltry consumerism that supported it. Halloween products were never displayed before October, and sometimes not even at the beginning of the month. Some retail establishments were devoid of macabre merchandise altogether. But here and there, among discount chains like K-Mart and Woolworth and the occasional drug store, you’d find a rack of crummy costumes and no more than half an aisle of accessories.
Most of the costumes were so bad that they inspired many kids to create their own. This was the era of thin, plastic face masks molded into vague resemblances of whomever happened to be popular during the previous TV season. They were held in place with a thin band of elastic secured to either side of the mask with staples that were not guaranteed to last a single evening. Often they were sold with gaudily colored vinyl tunics branded with a familiar logo that, in conjunction with the mask, were sufficient to suggest the intended identity.
“Oh!” an enthusiastic adult might exclaim as she grabbed the candy bowl and gave you the once-over. “I see…” and then, spotting the words Happy Days on your front and glancing back at the ambiguous mask, “you must be Fonzie!”
Before Jason Vorhees and Freddy Krueger became horror icons, the height of prepackaged gore was a tube of fake blood and a set of hinged vampire teeth. Standard fare for those enterprising enough to decorate included flat cardboard monsters, witches and pumpkins to tape inside windows or on doors. Those who were willing to shell out the big bucks might even go for 2-D articulated skeletons that could be moved into a limited variety of positions. Kids who eschewed the traditional pillowcase might stuff their candy into plastic pumpkins with carrying handles. That was about the extent of things.
Stories of tainted candy were still emerging urban legends, so it wasn’t unusual to find homemade treats among the Tootsie Rolls and Sugar Daddys. Whole candy bars were a rare treasure, and nothing was branded with holiday packaging. Necco Wafers were, unfortunately, still widely available.
Back then, if someone had taken the time and expense to transform their property into a haunted graveyard, they were the kooks of the neighborhood instead of the norm. Now, such a display is merely another blip on the radar of the Halloween Industry Association.
So as another season of ghosts and goblins comes and goes, don’t look for me handing out candy on the front porch. I’ll be busy elsewhere. But a day or so later, you might catch me in the clearance aisle of any nearby store, scarfing up skeletons for pennies on the dollar.