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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Halloween – Hooligans, Hijinks, and Happiness

First appeared on Blogcritics.

Hallo Another Halloween has come and gone. This year there was less doorbell ringing once it got dark. I used to look forward to that because this is when the more creative costumes used to appear – over the years my favorites included Hillary and Obama (as a couple), Bill Clinton with foot in his mouth, George W. Bush as a monkey, and a guy in a fat costume and Chris Christie mask carrying five pizza boxes. Alas this year the most creative thing I saw was Elsa and Olaf (from Frozen). Maybe with Halloween being on a Friday, the most creative older trick-o-treaters were too busy attending parties to bother with the door-to-door stuff. 

Still, during the daylight hours the bell rang steadily, and the most popular costumes were witches, ninjas (turtles and human alike), Batman, Disney princesses, and the Frozen sisters. I gave out the candy and marveled at how the houses in my neighborhood had been decorated. People actually enter contests to compete for the most haunted house in town, and the extent of the decorating now rivals Christmas in its intensity.

hallo 3I don’t know when this happened, but it occurred during my lifetime. Somehow Halloween went from being a minor holiday mostly loved by children into a mega-holiday, rivaling Christmas in terms of retail sales and decorated houses. This morphing into a super duper extravaganza is okay by me, but it sort of came a little too late in my life. I know I was in my twenties when it started happening and, while I still could enjoy the day, I wish it had been celebrated with such vigor when I was younger.

My father always spoke of Halloween as a silly day – one in which kids dressed up like hobos, carried around chalk dust or flour in a sack, and ran around the streets hitting objects and people to create clouds of spooky smoke. It was less about ghosts and goblins and more about a little bit of hooliganism and hijinks.

Dad noted that he would dress like Happy Hooligan, a cartoon character hobo that had been very popular back in my father’s youth. All the kids wore their parents’ old clothes, sometimes several times too big for them, and they would enjoy being “bums” for a night of revelry. The “treat” part, at least in my father’s time, came on Thanksgiving Eve. He told of walking from house to house in the cold asking for snacks or sweets. This was during the Depression, so I am wondering if this was inspired by the times more than it being a tradition. Dad said that things changed “at some point over the years” with kids dressing in costumes and going door-to-door to ask for the treats on Halloween – just as we know it today.

When I was a boy, I recall trick-o-treating with friends and carrying brown paper bags to catch our loot. We wore terribly made store bought costumes with awful plastic masks that smelled funny (I suppose they were made from toxic materials), and it used to be so cold on Halloween that my mother always made me wear a coat over the flimsy costume, defeating the whole purpose of wearing one in the first place. I remember the old ladies who opened their doors saying, “Oh, what a nice – what is that costume under your coat, son?” I still got my candy but that was annoying.

Flash forward to my twenties and I loved going to parties as an adult. Now I could dress as anything I wanted, and I recall a series of gory costumes over the years that varied from gross to gruesome. Long before the current adulation of zombies, I was a fan of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and one year I dressed as a zombie and used Hershey’s chocolate syrup as blood (just as Romero did). The problem was the smell and the fact that life is in color, not black and white like the film.

hallo 2I think the real shift in the holiday came with the advent of Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). The film still is chilling and set a standard for the “slasher” genre that would eventually include Jason, Freddy and countless other imitators. This is the time, for me, when Halloween changed from just the average silly holiday and became something more sinister, more caught up in the darkness of the Gothic novels that inspired the goofy song “Monster Mash” and all the others that would follow. I think this was when Halloween started becoming more than a kid’s holiday – it became big business.

Now Halloween is my children’s second favorite holiday after Christmas, and it is a day that they revel in as they dress in their costumes that would put my old ones to shame. Besides the costumes being more intricate and expensive, they go trick-o-treating to "haunted" houses that have all the special effects we would expect from Hollywood movies.

Houses all over rival the Munster’s 1313 Mockingbird Lane in their spookiness, and kids roam the streets like Romero’s zombies looking for treats instead of brains. There is a hideous under current to some of the decorations, with certain places pushing the limit in terms of the gore-fest ratio. Yet the kids scream in glee as they run past these houses, then double back and dare to ring the bell to see what horrors await them as the door squeals open. Who knew there could be such happiness in getting scared?

Halloween is that magical time when a kid can be a kid and an adult can be one too. Yes, things have gotten a bit more macabre as the years have passed, and those who embrace the holiday have taken it to sometimes odd extremes as they transform houses into catacombs, dungeons, lairs, and labyrinths. The truth is it is a good opportunity to allow your inner ghoul to express itself, and each year it seems more people want to join the party and make sure that it is a graveyard smash.

On Halloween night after the kids went to bed with dreams of overflowing trick-o-treat buckets dancing in their heads, I settled down not to a winter’s nap but to watch two of my favorite scary movies – the original Halloween and Dawn of the Dead. Both films came out the same year, and obviously directors Carpenter and Romero were on to something. Despite all the imitators of these two types of films over the years, they still stand the test of time as better than the rest.

I look forward to Halloween because I feel like a kid again and have an excuse to dress up, eat candy, and watch old scary movies. Halloween is a blast for kids of all ages, and truthfully we can all use a little trick or treat in our lives, even if it’s only one day a year.

  Photo credits: Halloween-2014.com, flickr.com, Wikipedia    

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