By James H. Burns
I’m always delighted by even the idea of the joy in the eyes of Halloween revelers, whether it be the kids who “Trick or Treat,” or the grownups who can discern the special magic of the day!
For years now, I’ve made a point of being home on the 31st, to make sure I could be part of my Long Island town’s traditions. I’ve looked at Halloween as a chance to give something back to the community, to try to add something a little extra memorable to the festivities.
It’s also a good way to meet far more of your neighbors, in a standard suburban world where you might not necessarily know the people who live right up the block!
Twenty-five years ago, youngsters at my door could see through the screen to a life-sized Superman and Batman that were just past me, in the living room.
On another night, every window of my home was adorned with special Halloween themed balloons, the merry Mylar reaching high into the October sky.
For another year, a wide assortment of latex masks of classic Hollywood monsters (a wolfman, a mummy, Planet of the Apes’ Dr. Zaius and creatures from The Outer Limits)–an amazing collection I had somehow acquired–peered out from those portals, gazing upon a lawn filled with a virtual galaxy of giant pumpkin lawn bags!
That particular display was evidently so enticing, that a couple of carloads of teens and twenty-somethings stopped–on their way to parts unknown–to find out just what kind of goodies such a home might be giving out!
Over the decades, one could also gauge our pop culture phenomena simply by scanning the annual getups, from the California Raisins, through the Power Rangers to Captain Jack Sparrow. The perennials remain princesses, ninjas, the latest horror film villains and an all-star array of DC and Marvel Comics superheroes!
I’m always a bit stunned when I’ll open the door and some child just shoves his or her bag forward! I trust I’m appropriately jolly when I insist they say “Trick or treat,” and, in fact, everyone has always responded with good cheer! (One little girl, when I asked, “Now, what do you say?” replied, “Happy Halloween!”)
If there’s been any true dismay, it’s that over the years, the number of celebrants has declined, or ebbs and flows, anyway, with a wild fluctuation. The original devolution began at least as far back as the early 1980s, when media reports of tainted Halloween “gifts” intimidated many parents from letting their progeny go “door-to-door.”
Local organizations, and many elementary schools, countered this sad development with the lovely new tradition of sponsoring their own Halloween soirees.
One of the rewards of decorating your house is that it lets folks know that you can be relied on for some fine All Hollows Eve bounty. To a large degree, this works but I, along with similarly spirited residents, have been mystified when we’ll see a group of kids with their parents, refuse to cross the street, sticking solely with their immediate “circle of homes.”
I was most amazed when Halloween has fallen on a weekend. For sure, I thought we’d get families all day long, but the turnout again didn’t begin until about four in the afternoon.
I was astonished because when I was a kid in the 1970s, a Halloween on a Saturday or Sunday as an extra bonus: entire days to indulge in our candy campaigns! My cohorts and I would be almost like guerrilla strategists, plotting which roads would be best to hit, realizing we could visit twice as many abodes as usual and fill two huge sacks with confections!
Of course, I can also remember some later grade school interims, when we even did some trick-or-treating on our lunch hours!
On one Saturday in the early ’70s, I donned my first and only Halloween makeup job, a result of my new-found fascination with the Universal monsters that I had been introduced to on WNEW-TV’s Creature Features. I was some kind of green-skinned, fanged apparition.
When the afternoon proved so cold that my mom insisted I wear a sweatshirt under my jacket, I acquiesced, probably recalling that Frankenstein’s creation also wore layers in one of his later appearances (and that perhaps his ancestors–the whole lot of them!–might also have cared about his well-being!)
As an adult, I’ve tried to make sure my Halloween sweets include at least one nostalgic item: cartoon character candy sticks (a far more positive spin on the “candy cigarettes” of the past), Pixie Sticks (whose flavored sugary powder I can still devour to a frightening degree!), those rare little mini-boxes of Chiclets (which I finally thought to look for, on Amazon!), and even the “Maryjanes” of our Grandparent’s era.
My mainstays have been the miniature Hersheys with almonds and some kind of lollypop. The Scooby Doos were popular years ago but I have to admit to keeping many of the “reds” for myself! The most popular candies over the years? No doubt, it was the eyeball bubblegum balls, although the Tinkerbelle candy necklaces, as well as other Disney character candies were also a hit a few years back.
Perhaps the most excitement was prompted when I began including some extracomic books from my collection. As I handed out a Captain America, or Fantastic Four, or Spider-Man (or Archie!), I was astonished by how many youngsters told me they had never owned a comic before…
And the day can be a time for heroes, as well as ghouls. Ultimately, the manner in which anyone enjoys this autumn exuberance doesn’t necessarily matter. I know folks in apartment buildings–and elsewhere–who haven’t participated in any Halloween activities for ages but who still smile at embodiments of the moment.
For my own personal Halloween traditions, I know the season is upon us when I purchase my first Peeps ghost and enjoy a handful of candy corn. It also crosses my mind that the kids I met over two decades ago are now in their thirties. Yikes!
I hope that some of them still have memories of the pleasant house along their path and try to extend some of that Halloween cheer to their own new generation of trick-or-treaters.
It is, after all, the time of year when even a ghost can smile.
(James H. Burns is a writer and actor living on Long Island.)