Halloween never seemed to be a big deal when I was a kid. I grew up in Florida during the mid-1960s, and recall maybe a week or so of festivities. We were able to wear our costumes to school for one day. One year, my folks arranged a party for me and my friends complete with a cookout and bobbing for apples and other games. After that, it was time to go out into the neighborhood and collect candy. The heat had abated somewhat by then, but the shiny synthetic of a store-bought costume trapped what remained, especially if you wore the full-face mask that usually came with it. One year I was a clown, another, a fortuneteller. Both came with masks. I still remember the smell of the plastic.
Over the next few days, we traded for favorite treats and overdosed on sugar. That was pretty much it until the following year.
After college, I moved to Columbus, Ohio. It was my first time in the Midwest, and though I had spent the first few years of my life in western New York and knew all about falling leaves and blizzards, I had been too young to experience northern Halloween traditions.
The stuffed figures–scarecrows, hanged men, witches–started showing up on front lawns and porch rocking chairs as early as mid-September, along with cornstalks, pumpkins, pots of chrysanthemums. Soon after came the ghosts and skeletons; the pumpkins that survived squirrel predation were carved into jack o’lanterns. Halloween had more of a celebratory feel. But it also seemed to mark a transition, serving as a reminder of end of harvest, shorter days, the arrival of cold. The day evolved from a tangle of Celtic and Roman traditions along with influence from the developing Catholic Church, with emphasis on the blurring of the boundary between this world and the next, the return of the dead, and the honoring of departed souls (the History Channel website has a page devoted to the subject ). I think the blurring is what speaks to me the most. One season into another, the time of growth changing to that of preparation, saving, “squirreling away.” The mingling of worlds.
A few years later, I moved to northeast Illinois, and saw the same extended celebration. I used to drive through Waukegan on my way to work, down streets lined with vintage Victorians and Federals. Ray Bradbury was born there, grew up there, and every so often I would wonder which streets he walked down, whether this or that field was the one in which he imagined Mr. Dark’s carnival setting up, and whether he was affected by that same sense of change.
Over time, the commercial aspects of Halloween have grown. Decorations have become more elaborate: inflatables, electronic figures with glowing eyes and recorded cackles. Candy and costumes show up in stores by the end of August, elaborate haunted houses abound, and cable stations run month-long horror film festivals. But none of that speaks to me—my Halloween is quieter. It’s the change in season, the coyote yips in the still night air, chill mornings, and the crackle of leaves underfoot. Winter around the corner, and maybe other things as well.
I wish I had an eerie tale to tell, some personal experience that rattled me, but my Halloween scares have been more imagined than experienced. The knock on the door hours after the town trick-or-treating time ended. The sounds of an old house on a cold night, and the one rattle or creak never heard before. Taking out the garbage after sunset, and hurrying to get back inside the latched gate because of that sensation of being watched. The feeling that some boundary has lifted and that this one night belongs to something else, and that we go out to meet it even as we mask our faces so it can’t see who we are.
(NB: this essay appeared a few days ago over at the Horror Writers Association blog)