This year as I get ready to shop for costumes and pull out decorations, I can’t help but remember how Halloween was years ago when I was a kid. While it is still my favorite day of the year, the holiday itself has changed so much since then.
The costumes of my youth didn’t seem very safe. They were often made of plastic. The mask had eye holes you could barely see out of as you walked the dark streets in search of candy. As you placed it on your head, the smell of the mask created a dizzying effect similar to the smell of the markers you sniffed at school. The mouth slit and pinprick nostril holes didn’t help and left you with little breathable oxygen. You secured the mask with an elastic string which you pulled over the back of your head. Your older brother used it as a tool of torture when he pulled the elastic band and snap!
The mask often broke by the end of the evening, either because of your brother or from the many times you had to pull it up because you couldn’t see or breathe. This left you to carry the mask while you walked and hold it up to your face when you knocked on the final doors of the night.
The skimpy plastic full-body suits weren’t much better. They would rip when you walked or moved too aggressively, or the ties in the back would come loose or pull off entirely, at which point your mother would step in and staple the costume together. Often, you went as your favorite superhero (Wonder Woman or The Hulk), slasher villain (Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers) or singer (Madonna or Michael Jackson).
Candy was candy. There was little option for parents who wanted to offer a healthier alternative. On occasion, you would find a random box of Sun-Maid raisins or a few dimes in the bottom of your bag. The raisins were tossed or, if found by your mother, added to the massive box she had in the cupboard. They became a school snack to be traded or trashed. The dimes were added to your piggy bank so you could save up for a new cassette tape, or you’d have them for the payphone at the mall.
When you came home, you would empty your pillowcase on to your bed or the rug in the den. Within moments, you went from Wonder Woman to shrewd negotiator as you traded your brother a Charleston Chew—which always got caught in your braces—for his candy cigarettes, which you thought made you look cool. You would sort your candy into piles as your mother came in asking to go through it all so she could inspect it for razor blades or evidence of tampering. Anything which had become partially unwrapped during the negotiations or the walk from house to house was thrown into the trash no matter how much you protested. There were strangers, your mother told you, who liked to hurt children.
Of course, Halloween wasn’t just about the actual night, but also the month leading up to it. If your parents were cool, you were allowed to watch scary movies. If your parents weren’t, you would forge a note with your mother’s signature and walk to the local video store. Halloween was a favorite, as was Friday the 13th. You were sure you’d be fine if you watched them. And you were, until your brother started humming the theme songs and making the ki-ki-ki-ha-ha-ha noise that accompanies every scene as the killer hunts his prey—unsuspecting kids who are disobeying their parents in one way or another—in the woods.
And Halloweens of your youth promised television specials and school parties where you were allowed and encouraged to wear your Halloween costume. You feasted on sugary treats and listened to “Monster Mash.” There was no schoolwork, because Halloween was a holiday. You pinned the nose on the jack-o’-lantern and may have even bobbed for apples by sticking your head and mouth into the same bucket as your friends. When you think back now, you can’t imagine doing something so unhygienic.
Halloween today, as a parent and an adult, is different. Some changes are improvements: The costumes, while more expensive, seem safer. Some changes are confusing. There are new traditions like the Switch Witch, who will trade candy for cash or other important kid stuff. Some kids even trade their candy in and earn money for charity. While these are great ideas and certainly healthier for mind and body, you wonder what happened to the carefree days of eating a bit too much sugar. A Halloween hangover was something you enjoyed as kid, but as a parent you now have no choice but to acknowledge how unhealthy it can be.
But whether lamenting about your own youth or building new traditions with your kids, Halloween will forever be a day to play dress up, use your imagination, wonder about the things that go bump in the night and go door to door asking for candy.