Funnily enough, I don’t remember any family trips to the pumpkin patch. I went regularly to our local patch as a school field trip in my early elementary years, but we only got to pick one to take back with us on the bus. I do remember a copious amount of pumpkins around the house each October, at least four of which went under the knife to become jack o’lanterns. They came from somewhere, but I was either not involved in getting them (pretty unthinkable) or this is a rare case of a holiday tradition of which I have no memory (equally unthinkable.) I don’t know.
Flipping through one of my picture books sometime in 1980, I came across an illustration of a boy in a tiger suit. This, for some reason, went off like a rocket in my five-year-old skull. I decided then and there that the acquisition of, and proud wearing of, a tiger suit would be the focal point of my existence.
The cardboard witch cutout in the background was a mainstay of our Halloween decorations until at least 1990, along with the green skull in the Dracula pic below
The end result, hot off my mother’s sewing machine, was a minor disappointment — it was not the plush, upholstered, fuzzy theme-park-mascot-style suit from the illustration, but rather a limp, featureless thing made of the thinnest tiger-print cotton with a mask like a grain sack. My bare hands dangled from the sleeves instead of being concealed in paws, and my battered size 1 Keds gave away my humanness at the suit’s bottom. The disappointment lasted only a moment, however, for this was an honest-to-goodness tiger suit. I decided I was immensely pleased with it no matter what. (In retrospect, I’m kind of glad it wasn’t a deluxe tiger suit, as that might have spun me off into a life of being a “furry,” and I’d be off somewhere yiffing right now instead of entertaining and informing you good people.) The fact that the tiger suit was completed close to Halloween was a happy coincidence. My tiger-suit mania could have hit me in January just as easily as late September.
Halloween of ’81 saw me in a fairly generic skeleton costume, no photo of which exists in my dusty archives. It was also the year in which almost no one came to our house for trick-or-treating, leaving us an enormous stockpile of freakishly large Lifesavers lollipops, with flavors like cherry-banana swirl, strawberry cheesecake, and perhaps okra. I remember eating those damn things well into the New Year.
Allow me at this time to introduce a new player to our Halloween show — my elementary school library. Not much bigger than a tennis court, really, it seemed to have everything. Presided over by the kindly Ms. Klinkhammer (long since gone to the Great Reserve Stacks in the Sky), it’s where we dutifully trooped single-file to watch filmstrips about basic first aid and Not Talking To Strangers, or make our weekly pilgrimage each Library Day to get our two books for the week. Wise old bird that she was, Ms. Klinkhammer quickly recognized me as a Gifted Reader, and my two-book-per-week limit was waived for the duration of my grade-school career.
I’m told I have some younger readers out there in Holy Bee Land, and Beeketeers be assured, this was it. I’m gonna sound like an old codger (not for the first time), and you’ve heard this all before, but there was no Netflix, no YouTube, no way to actually see any of these movies. Even VHS rentals were a couple of years in the future. You had to hope to catch one of them on TV (see below), or read the Crestwood House Monsters series from your school library again and again. And I’ve since learned they were found in almost every school library, and are responsible for sending many a young boy (it was almost always boys) down the path to life-long classic monster movie fandom.
Most people my age and older are pretty familiar with the writings of childrens’ author Beverly Cleary, who from 1950 until well into the 90’s wrote of the misadventures of grade-schoolers on Klickitat Street in suburban Portland. I had a small collection of her books, and what I didn’t have, the school library did. Regardless of the age of their target audience, I still maintain they contain some damn good writing, and I vividly remember a chapter from 1962’s Henry and the Clubhouse, because it described The Model Halloween, Halloween as I always wanted to celebrate it. Here is an excerpt, reproduced with no permission whatsoever:
“It was a perfect night for Halloween. The stars were bright and a north wind sent leaves skittering along the pavement. Jack-o’-lanterns grinned in front windows. Bands of boys and girls, some of them wearing costumes that glowed in the dark, trooped from door to door. Mothers of small children lurked in the shrubbery, while their little rabbits or ghosts climbed steps and rang doorbells. Henry felt so good he did a war dance in the middle of his front lawn before he started down the street.
Before Henry had time to ring a doorbell, he met a boy wearing a green cardboard head intended to look like the head of a man from outer space. Suddenly, the outer space man’s eyes lit up in a fiendish and scary way that made Henry suspect his friend Murph must be inside. Murph was the only boy in the neighborhood who knew enough about electricity to think up such a costume…
Together the boys proceeded down Klickitat Street ringing doorbells and shouting, “Trick or treat!”…Gradually, their bags grew fat with candy, peanuts, popcorn balls, individual boxes of raisins, apples, and bubble gum. The boys no longer stopped at every house. They compared notes with other trick-or-treaters and soon learned which people gave jelly beans or all-day suckers. These houses they skipped. They did not like jelly beans, and Henry felt that a boy who had a paper route was too grown-up to lick a sucker.”
What struck me the most, besides the fact that all the costumes were home-made, was that these kids were doing it on their own. Only the littlest kids had their parents with them. Otherwise, it was totally unsupervised. I vowed to myself that I would one day go trick-or-treating with just my friends, and no meddling adults.
Before we check out of the school library, I should mention it was the cause of another Halloween-related minor obsession of mine. Do-it-yourself monster make-up! There were two books on the subject in the library. The first was Make-Up Monsters, by Marcia Lynn Cox, and if you looked at the little circulation card glued to its inside cover, it would read “Matt I., 9/16/82. Matt I., 10/10/82. Matt I., 10/24/82. Matt I., 2/5/83. Matt I., 4/29/83. Matt I., 9/12/83…” and on and on. (My make-up experiments reached their peak at Halloween, but continued simmering year-round.) Originally published in 1976, and re-printed several times since, most of the models had horrible, shaggy Adam Rich-style bowl haircuts, plaid pants, and turtleneck sweaters, which provided additional entertainment. (The book’s lesser sequel, Creaure Costumes, was available at the public library. In later printings, the two slim volumes were combined.)
The emphasis was on make-up made from household ingredients. Corn syrup was suggested as an adhesive for everything. There was this amazing “Frogman” make-up from layers of dyed-green paper towels and cornstarch — with egg-carton cups for eyes! Try as I might, I was never able to pull this off. Chunks of rope (!?) were supposed to be used as the framework for the wide frog-lips, and I’m sorry, but even industrial-strength corn syrup (the kind they keep behind the counter) is not going to hold rope to your face while you pile on pound after pound of vile-smelling mushy paper towels and wait for it to harden. (If you look closely at the book cover, you can see ol’ Frogman toward the upper left.)
There was also a colossal mess known as the “Melting Man” — which consisted primarily of heaping warm yellowish goo onto your face, which was then supposed to harden into a horrifying visage. I’ve long since forgotten the goo ingredients, but I do remember a key feature was unpopped popcorn kernels. The batch that I tried never quite solidified, and dripped non-stop onto my shirt, my shoes, the carpet, the cat, etc. until I finally had enough and scraped it off into the kitchen sink, where the popcorn kernels played havoc with the garbage disposal for a few days.
The other book went by the unwieldy title of Movie Monsters: Monster Make-Up & Monster Shows To Put On by Alan Ormsby, published in 1975. The emphasis in this book was once again on the Universal monsters. I believe after a year or two of constantly getting it from the library, my mom lucked into a copy of it at a garage sale or flea market, and it occupied a place of pride on my shelf. The book not only gave make-up recipes — including an amazing one for recreating the Frankenstein Monster’s squared-off skull with a grocery bag and layers and layers of cornstarch-soaked masking tape and cheesecloth — but it also provided a script for a little play you could put on. As you would expect, the play was as terrible as the make-up was great.
Mom eventually grew tired of my kitchen raids, and piles of noisome goop over every available surface, and provided me with a little kit of actual monster-make up acquired from the Avon Lady. There was a jar of basic white (with a goofy cartoon ghost on the lid), and Chapstick-style tubes of red, black, and blue. I seem to recall these lasting for years, but I don’t know how, because for awhile I was putting that shit on every night, and going to school the next day with my eyebrows a little too dark and smears of white still behind my ears.
The result of all this experimentation was a self-designed Dracula, which I trotted out for Halloween ’82. I was quite proud of it, too, until our class Halloween party, where Art H. blew me out of the water with a much better Dracula. He had straight hair that could be swept back, Lugosi-style, and a grease-paint widow’s peak drawn onto his forehead. It would take a small nuclear blast to sweep back my unruly mop, and it certainly wouldn’t stay in place for long. He also used the barest hint of white make-up to give his face a pale cast, rather than slathering it on like a circus clown. His eyebrows were subtly darkened, rather than the intense, black Dan Hedaya-style eyebrows I had given myself. His lips were red, indicating his steady diet of fresh blood. My lips were black, indicating my possible genetic kinship with a German shepherd. I was inconsolable until it was pointed out by my friend Jimmy that Art had his mom come to the school and apply his make-up for him! Now you may have noticed, I was the very-indulged youngest child of my family, but even I wouldn’t ask for that. Besides, what funwas it? None at all, and I ended up enjoying the party and the rest of my Halloween season.
One of the great television phenomenons of Days Gone Past was the Creature Feature Matinee on television. From the 1950’s through the 1980’s on Saturday afternoons, local television affiliates would air an old horror movie, hosted by someone done up in ghoulish make-up. Between film segments, they told corny jokes, put on sketches, and generally behaved foolishly. (These “horror hosts” were obviously the primary influence on Mystery Science Theater 3000.) And because these were local stations, each city had their own host with his or her own distinct look and personality. Kansas City had their “Crematia Mortem,” Akron had their “Son of Ghoul,” and so on. I was lucky enough to see the legendary Svengoolie (above left), who was actually based out of Chicago, but syndicated to San Francisco’s Channel 44. I was able to pick up the Bay Area UHF stations on my little rabbit-eared black-and-white bedroom TV in Woodland. Thanks to Svengoolie, I saw the original Frankenstein (1931) and could finally fill in the gaps left by the Crestwood House summary.
I’m told that the local horror host tradition continues on some smaller stations (usually late at night), but they’re getting scarce as hen’s teeth. Channel 44 went Fox in ’86, but I think Svengoolie was back in the vault well before then. (For California viewers, that is. He continues to host local shows in Chicago.)
Finally seeing Frankenstein that Saturday afternoon in ’83 inspired me to take a crack at being the Frankenstein’s Monster himself for Halloween. (Remember, kids, Frankenstein was the name of the doctor, not the creature.) To pull this one off, I finally succeeded in securing a full-head rubber mask. And I was all about the details, as usual. I always liked the fact that the Monster was usually portrayed as kitted out in a natty suit jacket. I remember reading that the average-sized Boris Karloff wore a jacket several sizes too small to make his body seem larger when he played the Monster in the Universal flicks of the 30’s. I happened to have a too-small blazer, which I wore in combination with a very unfortunate clip-on bowtie for a relative’s wedding some time before. The bow-tie, dyed black, had already seen service as part of the Dracula costume the previous year. Mom drew one of her infrequent lines at dying the blazer, so the Monster went forth to terrorize the countryside not in funereal black, but in a rather more pedestrian tan corduroy with elbow patches. I augmented the jacket with shoulder padding made from a pair of washcloths, and added a pair of genuine 80’s moon-boots to round out the costume.
Nothing says “flesh-eating undead lunging at you from the bowels of hell” like a floral-print couch and a “Home Sweet Home” on the wall in the background.
By 1984, I had learned to apply my facial make-up with a lighter touch. I borrowed my dad’s tattered work clothes to round out my zombie look, but I’m pretty sure I owned clothing just as busted if not more so. Why I thought everything on a zombie should be six sizes too big (including shoes) is beyond me. I went to my first non-school Halloween party on the 30th at my friend Jeremy’s house, which was a huge, rambling old Victorian — the perfect setting. We began decorating weeks in advance, building tombstones, dismembered corpses, scarecrows, and a ghost on a zipline from his second story window to the lemon tree in his front yard. It always seemed like we squeezed a full days’ work out of the two-and-a-half hours or so between the end of school and dusk, when I would ride my bike three blocks to home and dinner. I’m glad I went to this party in full costume, because it definitely reminded me that I should wear shoes that fit for trick-or-treating the next night.
By 1985, renting movies was getting commonplace, and I was gorging myself on all kinds of films, from animation (Disney shorts featuring Chip & Dale, Donald, and/or Goofy were particular favorites), to the Marx Brothers, to the old monster movies I had previously only read about. Ghostbusters came home from the video store at least every other week. I hadn’t given up on make-up experimentation, and I was getting better. I had outgrown the old Avon kit with the cartoon ghost. Using a little flesh putty and some carefully applied coloration, I gave Jeremy the appearance of a grotesquely swollen-shut eye, and nearly gave his mom a coronary when she caught a glimpse of him. My costume ideas were getting a little more out-there, too. I had the notion of wearing an actual carved pumpkin on my head, a la Return To Oz‘s Jack Pumpkinhead, and experiments toward that end resulted in nothing more that a sore neck, sticky hair, and three or four totally destroyed pumpkins.
What I ended up being that year was a werewolf, and what appears to be partially-congealed brownie batter on my face is actually brown cream make-up over a layer of liquid latex and tissue paper. Ever on the quest for more and more sophisticated make-up, on a shopping trip to Sacramento, I begged my mom to take me to a “real” theatrical supply store for “real” monster make-up. We ended up at Broadway Costumes on Franklin Boulevard, and I went home with a $4.99 bottle of liquid latex, which I thought was the greatest thing since indoor plumbing. Even though there was no call whatsoever for a werewolf to have the skin of a 90-year-old with advanced melanoma instead of fur, latex became a vital part of every monster make-up design I concocted from that moment until the bottle was almost empty and permanently gummed shut in 1988 or so.
Also undocumented with photographs is Halloween 1986 — the year I finally got to trick-or-treat without adults. Everyone agreed we were old enough (sixth-graders) as long as we stayed together. My friends Mat (with one “t”) and Colen and I dressed up as pirates, and hit the neighborhood around Colen’s house — on our own. We passed a Walkman back and forth, alternating between Run DMC’s Raising Hell and Van Halen’s 5150. Sadly, the night was kind of a letdown. The neighborhood was pretty empty, I no longer found candy all that much of a motivation, and I just got tired. I remember getting picked up on our designated corner, and riding home in the back of my dad’s pick-up truck, shivering in the cold wind, thinking I think that was it. I’m done.
And that year really did sort of finish trick-or-treating for me, or at least the spirit of trick-or-treating. I ended up going through the motions for three more years. I moved to the tiny town of Robbins, where unsupervised trick-or-treating was normal, as everyone knew everyone else. You couldn’t go further than five blocks in any direction without ending up in a tomato field. In 1987, my group of friends donned trench coats and fedoras and went as The Untouchables. (DePalma’s version of the old TV show was the must-see movie for us that year.) It was more about socializing than the age-old, dogged door-to-door trek for candycandycandy. And there was an element of exhilarating danger, as we spent a large part of the night being chased through the darkened town by the older kids who were armed with bottle rockets and not afraid to use them.
My friend Nick and I got political in the election year of 1988 and went as Reagan and Nixon, through the magic of rubber masks and navy-blue suits with red ties. I was in a hurry to get home in time for Married…With Children. By 1989, I was living in Yuba City and considered myself retired from the trick-or-treating business, but was convinced by the girl I was dating at the time to give it one more go-round. My final Halloween costume was — once again — the devil. A simple white shirt and black pants, with a red satin cape and a set of horns. I managed about forty-five minutes before feeling very silly and packing it in. I was a freshman in high school, after all.
That was the end of Phase One. Phase Two began when I had kids of my own, and re-opened the Pandora’s Box of make-up experimentation, pumpkin-carving, and candycandycandy. To my dismay, even Phase Two is now slowly ending as my oldest son announced this might be his last year of trick-or-treating (he’s the same age I was when I was being pursued by a firework-wielding delinquent with my Untouchable trench coat flapping behind me).
My sons, Cade & Cameron, Halloween 2009
I fervently hope there’s a Phase Three, because I love Halloween.
Epilogue (from my post on The Institute of Idle Time Message Board, 10/27/08):
Back in 1996, I was attending Chico State, but commuting from Yuba City. At the time, I was a bit tight with a dollar (not like the spendthrift make-it-rain maniac I am now), so I did not want to pay for a parking sticker. The result was my white ’88 Dodge Colt with the black fender was parked about ten blocks from campus. That Halloween, my last class got out at 5:00. The sun was a blazing orange ball rapidly sinking toward the horizon. Walking back to my car in the hazy dusk, I became aware that the air felt…heavy. A peculiar electricity crackled around me. I could sense mischief and evil deeds being planned. The walk to the car seemed longer than usual.
These were the days when Halloween in Chico meant a long dark night of arrests, riots, vandalism and general mayhem. I remember thinking “I gotta get the hell out of Dodge before things break bad.” I was moving at a pretty brisk trot when I finally reached my car. I hit the on-ramp for southbound 99 just as the sky went purple and the witching hour began…I will never forget the feeling that hung in the air.
It cropped up again just a couple of years ago. I was house-sitting for my parents on Halloween. My folks live in a pretty low trick-or-treat traffic area, and my sons were with their mom, so I was looking forward to a quiet night. Around the same time of evening as noted above, about 5-5:30ish, I felt that same peculiar heaviness in the atmosphere. Still quite light enough to see, but the dark was on its way. I wandered onto the front porch, lit the jack o’lanterns and a cigar, and just sat for awhile and listened as I sipped my whiskey. A few very distant whoops and yelps. Just some kids having fun, I’m sure, but distance distorts. It sounded creepy. A firecracker. A siren or three. Sounds of dark doings afoot. I shivered a little. It was getting cold…but it also felt ominous out there. I went inside to watch the Ghost Hunters Live nine-hour special, once again believing in the power of Halloween.