Halloween: The Bitter and the Sweet

Haunted Memories of Halloweens Past

“It was an exercise in greed. Nobody cared what
you wore or anything like that. It was how many bags of candy could you actually
get. I remember, literally, three or four shopping bags full of candy. You know,
we’d have to go home and dump it and come back. It was really just pure greed.”

Alice Cooper, “Halloween: The Happy Haunting of
America(1997)

In Chuck Williams’ holiday documentary,
Halloween: The Happy Haunting of America,” shock rock icon, Alice Cooper,
ponders the darker side of October 31st. His observations remind us
that the origins of All Hallows’ Eve are rooted in not only the supernatural,
but in the darker sides of ourselves, in spite of our cultural insistence that
the celebration of Halloween is for children.

Although in recent years, adults have taken back
the night with rituals of masquerade parties and pilgrimages to elaborate and
terrifying haunted attractions, the concept of Halloween being anchored by the
tradition of Trick or Treating has long been the sole privilege of the very
young. The dress up play, the make believe and the pursuit of free sweets in
roving gangs of monsters, super heroes and fantasy characters seems innocent
enough. But what lurks behind the Target vampire teeth and Walmart fright wigs
of these little monsters? What primal instincts are awakened by the ancient
traditions of Halloween?

As a little Phantom, I participated in Trick or
Treating every October since the first year I could walk, and although I
remember attending several Halloween parties at the homes of friends and
schoolmates, I only remember hosting one Halloween party at my parent’s house.
My mom took me to the local hardware store where we bought a shopping cart full
of black garbage bags. The idea was to turn our garage into a house of horrors
worthy of a neighborhood hootenanny, and we spent the better part of a day
cutting garbage bags and duct taping black plastic to the garage walls, covering
my dad’s tools and wrapping his shotgun shell re-loader.

The next step in getting the haunted garage ready
for the party was covering the walls with cardboard Beistle Halloween cutouts.
Jack-O-Lanterns, black cats, glow-in-the-dark ghosts and witches were evenly
spaced throughout the room, and my dad installed black lights in the old light
bulb sockets. My favorite memory of the haunted garage is the Wolf Man figure we
constructed to guard the entrance. We bought a Collegeville Wolf Man mask with a
day-glo painted face that would glow under the black lights, and stuffed my
dad’s old hunting clothes with newspapers to form the body. He had a plaid shirt
worthy of Lon Chaney Jr., covered with denim overalls, and the look was
completed with work gloves and boots. An old, Styrofoam wig holder was covered
in black plastic to hold the werewolf mask in place.

In the dead center of the room hung the piece de
resistance, a huge black spider pinata. This papier-mache monsterpiece was the
mystery and the terror of the room. My parents had insisted on filling this
eight legged arachnid themselves, so I had no idea what dark treasures awaited
inside its terrible belly. All I know is that we hung it up the day before the
party. I could hear the treats inside tumbling around as I helped my dad hold it
steady while he nailed it to the ceiling. All day and all night it hung there
while I obsessed over its mysteries, occasionally tapping it with my fingers
trying to size up the treats inside like a kid shaking his Christmas presents
under the tree.

The day of the party arrived and as soon as I got
home from school I went out to explore the haunted garage and help get
everything ready for the arrival of the kids in a couple of hours. I carefully
checked the giant spider to make sure my younger brother hadn’t previously tried
to poke a hole in his belly to get some early treats.

Next, I helped my mom move spare chairs into the
garage where we set up a mini movie theater. I was already a part time
projectionist with our Super 8 movie projector and my dad had edited together
three short reels of monster movies we owned so I wouldn’t have to rewind and
load each separate 8mm film. Tonight’s triple feature would be four minute
condensed, Castle Films versions of “Dracula,” “House of Frankenstein” and
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.” Sound effects for these silent reels were
provided separately by my “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House” LP
playing from the black plastic covered record player in the corner.

As soon as the kids began to arrive, I ran off to my
bedroom to don my Collegeville Ultraman costume. Mom brought snacks and sodas
out to the kids who gathered to look around the haunted garage and check out the
newspaper stuffed Wolf Man. We finally had a room full of kids and things were
starting to get rowdy so my dad announced the start of the classic horror
movies. Everyone sat down, dad pulled down the portable movie screen and I ran
over to start the sound effects. I still remember the clicking sound of the
projector as a room full of kids sat and watched fifteen glorious minutes of
silent monster madness, cheering their favorite monsters and feigning terror at
the appropriate moments.

After the movies, my mom decided a game of musical
chairs was in order, so all the chairs were placed in a circle beneath the giant
spider pinata.I managed to get eliminated fairly quickly, but I was never a big
fan of musical chairs anyway, so I went to get a Coke with some of the other
early losers. We discussed the white elephant in the room which was, of course,
the black spider in the room. My friends and classmates were as curious about
its contents as I was.

Finally, it was time for the ritual sacrifice.
That black spider must die to appease the gods and provide treats for the
masses. My dad brought out a sturdy stick and the winner of the musical chairs
competition was given first swing at the eight legged guardian of the secret
treasure. The spider survived quite a few mighty blows, but it lost a limb or
two in the battle. Finally it was my turn to slay the beast, and I gave it my
best shot but I wasn’t well trained in the art of pinata murder and I failed.

I slunk away to the corner by the Wolf Man to
await another turn, but that turn would never come. A kid in a cute tiger
costume had much better pinata ninja skills and split the critter right down the
middle spilling his guts full of treats and prizes! The booty hit the floor and
spread out across the room. My eyes darted about the floor. I saw cheap candy
necklaces, Now N Laters and even some full size Snickers bars amid rubber
skeletons and spider rings! What a haul!

I reached down to pick up a piece of candy but it
was snatched by another kid before I could grasp it. I went for a rubber
skeleton, but it was whisked away as well. I looked around and the whole floor
was crawling with clutching, clasping kids, only they weren’t kids anymore. They
were hungry beasts, craving and desperate. Soon everything would be gone and I
would have nothing. Then I saw a full Snickers bar next to the foot of the Wolf
Man that seemed to have avoided detection by the ravenous horde. Just as I was
about to lunge for it, I saw a cute little girl in a witch costume looking down
at the same candy bar. She was using her witches cloak as a makeshift treat bag
and that sucker was full. We locked eyes for a split second. I reached out my
hand for the Snickers bar and I swear she growled and snapped at me! She
snatched up the candy bar and I withdrew my hand, just glad all my fingers were
still accounted for.

Soon after that melee, the party was winding down,
and I was holding back tears because I had no treasure from the spider’s guts to
run my fingers through. There was nothing special inside that spider that I
couldn’t easily talk my parents into buying for me at the local dime store the
next day, but at the time my situation seemed bleaker than I could see past. It
wasn’t so much the lack of rubber skeletons and spider rings that haunted me,
but it was how this group of normal, laughing kids had suddenly turned into
savage little beasts. I’ll never, ever forget the look on that little witch’s
face when it came down to her or me for that Snickers bar. That face haunts me
still when I’m alone at night.

As many magical memories as I carry with me about
twilight neighborhood wanderings, double feature horror screenings with long
gone friends and the buzz of excitement in line at local haunted houses, I also
carry with me this scene right out of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” The
years make even that experience all the sweeter in memory, so I guess Alice was
partly right. You can’t get to the sweet without a taste of the bitter.

The Phantom of The Ville

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