Hallowe’en long post time, everyone. Gather ’round and I’ll tell a story.
Every single year, I take Hallowe’en off work. The whole day. It’s my favourite day of the year, and it has been for a very long time. Nothing holds a candle. New Years is this amazing social celebration, maybe second only to Hallowe’en in the way it brings people together across religious, political and geographic lines. Christmas is lovely, with the snow and family and presents and – if you can swing it – that abiding sense of peace and warmth that’s meant to form the heart of the season. I’m pretty new to Hanukkah, but it feels like a beautiful celebration of family and light and candles; I love the way the burning of the menorah each night gives an amber glow to an hour or so meant exclusively for time with loved ones (and wine). But none of these are Hallowe’en, to me, and I can get into why.
I think it’s because you and I share a lot of memories. Let’s get into it.
I grew up in a town that felt small, but looking back, really wasn’t. It’s about a 40 minute drive from the city. It’s boring and it sprawls and it has sections named CITY and TOWNSHIP which have differing laws for some wacky reason. When I was a little kid we lived up in this heavily wooded neighborhood full of evergreen trees and cul de sacs and young families freshly moved out from the city. We were one of those, sort of. We didn’t stay there for too much of my childhood, but compared to the city it was unique. There were these wide (to my tiny eyes) streets lined with weird-shaped houses and broad stretches of brush. There were fields with transformer towers and little else, with acres of waving long grass. There were a lot of gullies and brambles and forest, the kind you don’t see in the city, or even there, anymore. All of the neighborhoods had these kinds of eery, woodland names. It was picturesque by day, but at night it could also be spooky and dark, especially for a kid. It still is spooky and dark, far enough out from the city. It looked like the town from the movie Hallowe’en, or any of the other ‘sleepy, picturesque’ neighborhoods that Stephen King makes a living writing about. It’s cute by day, and by night it looks like every suburban horror movie set, all silent homes and amber streetlamps. It was a wild place to experience Hallowe’en as a tiny child.
Back then, we lived in a big brown house on a cul de sac, surrounded by other pods of cul de sacs, and for a tiny kid it was this functionally infinite spiral of houses and driveways and trees all spinning on forever. My earliest Hallowe’en memories, and my memories of the town itself, take on this weird dual nature of delight and horror. This will be a running theme. I remember being, like, 6, and living in that big house with my Mom and my Dad. And every Hallowe’en, my Dad (who is precise and industrious, and loves setting this kind of thing up), would put himself in charge of the cul de sac fireworks display, which was awesome. We’d have this big wheelbarrow full of sand, and my Dad would take me down to the video store – which was also the Fireworks store because this is smalltown B.C. – and we’d pick out a million different brightly coloured cardboard packages and cart them all back home. When night fell on Hallowe’en, he’d cart the sand-barrow out and the cardboard rockets and get to work setting everything up. We’d have the entire loop of houses out there, huddled in lawn chairs in a giant circle while my Dad went nuts lighting off roman candles and screecheroos and those weird fizzing worm-things, passing out sparklers to kids and dashing all the used rocket-shells in a big water bucket. Surrounded by trees and the moon and passing trick or treaters, we’d sit out there in wonder and squeal at the explosions in the sky. It was wonderful and magical – and dangerous. I remember one particular Hallowe’en, and it’s one of my first, in which a bottle rocket or a roman candle must have tipped in the barrow, and gone over on its side. It went off and screeched just over the heads of the crowd, buzzing past our ears. It was a close call, and one my Mom still recalls if you bug her about it. My Dad got in trouble, but the show went on, and it taught me something important about the thin, blurry line between fear and fun. And Hallowe’en.
Now, I don’t know if it was actually the same year, since my Hallowe’en memories have stitched themselves together in the way old memories do, but it was the first and only time I ever wore my green dinosaur costume. If I’m remembering correctly, I was a plushy green dinosaur and my friend was a pirate with a little eyepatch and sword. I had the equivalent of a ‘Pete’s Dragon’ Kigurumi: a full-on pyjama dinosaur body-suit situation. I was a seriously young child here, so of course my parents came trick-or-treating with me. Turns out pirate kid – with his simple, removable costume – had the right idea, because when the skies opened up and we both got drenched with rain, he could still walk. I wasn’t so lucky: I found myself dragging ten pounds of soaked, polyester-stuffed dragon tail like a soggy ball and chain. This story lives in infamy in my family, there are pictures. They’re embarrassing. But I remember something else about that evening too, something better: I remember the way we rounded those wide corners through that sleepy neighborhood, and the houses that seemed massive with their neon lights and decorations and cackling adults in costumes. This was prime smalltown trick or treating in the early-mid 90s, remember, and Hallowe’en was in full swing: there were no houses unattended, no lights out or non-participating families. There was so much less of the paranoia and concern we tend to associate with this kind of stuff nowadays, though it probably just seemed that way because I was tiny. It doesn’t matter, because 90s Hallowe’en felt like an alternate dimension. It was everything I knew about that cozy/creepy part of town, turned on its head. Everyone was out and about, there were prowling folks in costumes jumping out to scare kids, every ‘mansion’ was haunted, every door a new opportunity to be terrified. I remember the sound of it – the way everything seemed inside-out for the night. The shows I was used to seeing on television were replaced by scary movies. Adults were scaring kids on purpose. There were shrieks in the air. Suddenly everything I’d taken for granted became new and strange – and in that way, dangerous. This was exciting for young me, but also daunting in a way I don’t think I’d realized yet. Shortly before the skies opened up and turned my tiny dragon costume into a weight-training suit, I rounded a corner and saw a cackling woman with a whip and an accomplice, putting on a kind of show. I was very small, so the dominatrix angle didn’t register – I do remember that there was a lot of leather, though. My parents sternly about-faced and headed the other direction, dragging me in tow. I’d seen something unintended for me, I guessed, beyond my tiny comprehension. This is a memory that stands out.
We left that house not too long after that, but there are other memories from other Hallowe’ens that stand out too, with that same mix of wonder and dread.
I remember being an older little kid, when we moved to the complex where I’d live for the rest of my teens, and the literal gated community atmosphere. I remember how awesome that was for trick or treating. No more terrifying copses of tall trees, but the advantage of a literal matrix of houses to maximize for the best treat/square footage ratio …except for when we’d step into the wild west of the side-streets beyond, or even across the street to the empty field full of shouting, reveling teens.
I remember getting home with my haul and dumping it all out on the floor while a spooky cartoon played on the tv, and bargaining for tootsie rolls and tiny Mars bars while our parents snapped a million pictures of our costumes, silently inspecting the treats for those imaginary razor-blades and LSD-pops that everyone knew could turn up.
I remember getting older and linking up with my friends on Hallowe’en, and the sudden weight of responsibility that came along with our parents staying home while we ran around getting candy on our own. This part was huge, and it’s a part of what makes Hallowe’en so special: suddenly instead of just being a night to dress up and get treats, Hallowe’en became an opportunity to dress up how we liked, and more importantly, act how we liked. At night! Hallowe’en turned from a family activity and made a crucial transition into something immediately empowering. Sure the town was still creepy and the candy was still the goal, but there was a whole new added layer of agency to the thing. We weren’t kids being led around the strange, topsy-turvy twilight world of Hallowe’en anymore: we were entrusted (and this is an important word, entrusted) with the task of doing it ourselves. That’s a terrifying, awe-inspiring amount of power to give kids. We didn’t need booze; we were drunk on the excitement of the thing. We literally lived around the corner from an old, spooky cemetery. There was a housing facility for the mentally ill down the street (and though they were entirely harmless and kind people, we were ignorant. This was the kind of thing that spooked kids back then). There were two empty homes nearby known to be super-haunted Creepy Houses. We even lived down the street from a known Hell’s Angels clubhouse. I grew up in an episode of Twin Peaks, and we were being given the task of shepherding ourselves into the dangerous twilight realm, a domain of monsters, spooky stories, weird mysteries and dangerous big-kids. We’d been warned countless times about the hypothetical dangers of the night, and suddenly found ourselves turned loose into it. You really can’t overstate the size of this step for a bunch of sheltered, small-town kids. For a night, we were new and empowered versions of ourselves, and our costumes were our disguises and armor in one.
I remember the backpack full of fireworks that we passed from kid to kid, lighting off bottle rockets and screecheroos once we were too cool to trick or treat anymore. I remember diving into the ditch or the hedges and flinging the bag aside when grown-ups would pop out to yell at us. We weren’t too cool for costumes, yet.
I remember getting old enough to take out other kids’ little siblings, when trick or treating became a spectator sport. I remember the feeling of having passed that invisible threshold that no one had told me about: old enough for costumes, too old for candy. We’d passed outside the magic circle. There are a lot of these in life, and none of them come with a warning. It’s the advanced form of realizing some parents still smoke. It’s the age you realize all the adults drinking ‘coffee’ on Hallowe’en were drinking wine.
I remember the first Hallowe’en parties, which were my first house parties, forever linking the two. Every house party has secretly been a Hallowe’en party in my head, ever since.
I remember moving to the city and hosting 7 years worth of Hallowe’en events of my own. I first moved to the city on October first. That’s a connection I can’t untie either. I’ve been celebrating Hallowe’en ever since, in a sense.
What I want to say about Hallowe’en, at least Hallowe’en as I understood it as a kid, is that it’s an intensely strange event and it’s full of contradictions. I think we’ve had a lot of the same experiences. It’s a time for friends and celebration, sure, but there’s an element of danger to it. Not only is this danger ever-present on Hallowe’en, it’s a core part of the experience: we celebrate by decorating our homes in fun Autumn colours… and then scare ourselves senseless with movies and games. We dress our kids up for the night out, but shepherd them away from fireworks and dirty costumes, drunk adults and too-scary houses; things widely accepted to be Just A Part Of Hallowe’en. We make fun little pumpkins and decorations in the shapes of corpses, hollywood serial killers and moaning spirits. It is, very literally, a night of revelry meant to keep evil and misfortune – always encroaching – at bay. That’s wild to me. From the moment you’re let loose on Hallowe’en, whether as a tiny child carefully watched by parents or as a teen freshly filling your lungs with the gunpowder scent of new freedom, you’re entering into this intimate amalgam of joy and danger. Your costume transformation becomes an obvious metaphor for that new autonomy. If we’re being corny, it’s ~ Trick AND Treat ~, and you learn very early on that it’s always both; Everything is. It’s infinite possibility, permanently tinted with the knowledge that things can just as easily turn to disaster. It’s dangerous and wild – it’s what magic must feel like, I think.
It’s exactly what growing up feels like, too.
And so every single Hallowe’en you’ll find me off work, wandering the streets like I always do, taking it in. Another year older.
I love it, I always will. Happy Hallowe’en.