“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.”– Edgar Allen Poe
Remember the smell, and feel of those old-school rubber Halloween masks you wore back in the late 1980s and early 1990s? My favorite one was of a werewolf, and I must have worn that costume every single year until it started falling apart. As a child, I remember going up into the attic to retrieve the decorations and seeing the box marked “Halloween” and getting excited to break out that mask. I may have gone eight years in a row with it, but each year changed the outfit, football player werewolf, baseball player werewolf, or werewolf in a plaid shirt. Halloween has always been an entertaining holiday. I mean, you get to dress up as something scary, from POP! Culture, or anything! You get free candy, and you have a valid reason to watch several scary movies, both good ones and terrible ones. Halloween is amusing, and while it was exciting as a child, it can be and has been enjoyable as an adult.
Recently, my wife and I moved away from our home after a lengthy selling process. We wanted to move closer to work, as well as family, so we sold our house in Salem, MA, and with it our time in “Halloween-town.” With September ending and tomorrow we welcome October, I got to thinking about the holiday and what I remember about it and what it has always meant to me. It does not hurt that things are wicked weird with the pandemic, and who knows what October will look like this year. So, as I usually do and as any good historian does, I look to the past, my wicked travels, and find solace, comfort, and possibly a new narrative.
I have always loved Halloween. Growing up in a coastal Massachusetts town, trick or treating was terrific. We always knew where to get the best candy and always put a ton of thought into our costumes. So, when we moved to Salem, MA, I knew it would be like living in a town with a full year Halloween feel. Many of my weekly posts unveil events or situations that feel like culminations of life experiences, and this post is no different. Living in Salem served as a final scene in my horror/Halloween enjoyment. That is not to say that I don’t like it today. I do. But hosting parties and giving candy to hundreds of kids seems like the perfect bookend to a holiday that started years before with me in the costume and asking for candy. Let us travel back, together, Halloween’s past and present, with a heart and eye to Halloween’s future.
Ghost of Halloween’s Long Past
I grew up in a quaint town with wide streets lined with houses of different styles, shapes, and colors. While summer was always the best season because school was out and you got to hang out with friends frequently, the heat and humidity sucked. Sure swimming, playing wiffleball, and staying out way past curfew had its perks, but all good things must come to an end. As an adult, I look back on those summers with awe and amazement, but even more so while reflecting on how summer gave way to fall, and with a new season, new life, and new hope.
As we are, in 2020, with the autumn season now here, I do see a return of feelings long since packaged in boxes and stored away. While I am no longer a student, as a professor, I enjoyed the excitement of a new semester, meeting new students, and bringing everything I have to my profession so that students leave my class with as much understanding of the American historical journey as they can get. This year is off. Those feelings are gone. I am not teaching in class, but rather entirely online, as safe as possible, and still giving everything I got, but it’s different. The season of rebirth seems missing, but I remember it so well and find solace in those moments long since past.
As a kid going back in school in September, whether elementary, middle, or high school, I remember that even though school was in session, fall was the most pleasant time of year. It didn’t hurt that with the fall season came football, leaves changing colors and slowly falling from trees, apple picking with cider and donuts, and the spooky month of October. As September gave way to October came preparation for Halloween. While it’s possible I started getting ready for the season in late September, the vibe did not take hold in school, community, or home until the calendar said “October.” Then, as I said before, as a child, the countdown started, and the decorating began.
“I’m so glad I live in world where there are October’s.”– L.M. Montgomery
I lived in a good-size home very close to the water and had an attic that ran the length of the house’s footprint. It was a walk-up, but with slanted ceilings, of which I hit my head on more than one occasion. My childhood’s attic was one that housed my, and my siblings, toys, family photo albums, Christmas decorations, a random old typewriter, and shit that required ten people to move. Everything was labeled, slightly organized, and like all attics to children, scary as hell when it was dark, freezing when cold, and hot when, well, hot! It was an attic straight out of the 1970s and 1980s. Just think of a less exciting version of Mikey’s attic from The Goonies. Anyway, when October 1 hit, my mother would always send my little sister Becky and I up the attic stairs to get the decorations. I have two older brothers, and Becky is my younger sister and the baby of the family. She has three older brothers and still turned out perfect, all her, no one else! We were usually tasked with getting the decorations, probably because we enjoyed it, and there were always far fewer boxes for Halloween than Christmas.
When we retrieved all the Halloween goodies, we headed downstairs to the kitchen and helped my mom organize. Dracula, Werewolf, Mummy, a flaming skull, and Frankenstein posters would be placed on the kitchen cabinets using tape. I am not sure why we choose the kitchen cabinets for these decorations, but I am sure it made sense at the time. A large poster of some monster was taped to the storm door, and little ghosts (ripped up white pillowcase draped over a tennis ball, which was held together with an elastic band and two dark circles for eyes drawn on) were thrown on the bushes outside. We posted more pictures on the windows in the sunroom, got our cassette tapes of scary sounds, and our Halloween VHS movies like Witches Night Out, Mr. Boogedy, and The Witches, all of which my sister and I watched every year in the 1980s and 1990s. Once we got those classics, dusted them off, all that was left for us to do was press play.
While Dracula figurines needed placing in the hallway, faux cobwebs that required tacking on the banister, it was the box of all our costume options that was always left for last and brought incredible joy and excitement. While we had good choices in the box, classic plastic, rubber, masks with monster gloves, makeup, bandages, and other cool things collected from costumes throughout the years, we tried to use what we had and come up with new ideas. I think most people do that. While I might have worn the same werewolf mask for several years in a row, the outfit I wore was never the same. I mean, I could only rock the Teen Wolf idea once! Either way, we had supplies, we had ideas, but we also had time. It would still be a full month until Halloween, trick-or-treating, and the opportunity to showcase that year’s costume idea. Nevertheless, within the month, Halloween was a central theme to everything in school, when I got together with friends, or in the television shows and movies I watched.
It did seem that no matter the age, Halloween’s anticipation was always central to October in school, even high school when trick-or-treating had seemingly ended. Halloween was talked about, planned for, and eagerly awaited. But it was those years; when trick or treating was still a significant component of the excitement, I would like to maintain my focus for a minute. For a month, my sister and I were so excited about trick-or-treating and where we would go first, second, and third and so on in our quest to find the best candy houses and avoid apples. I feel it was very similar to one of the Halloween episodes of Bob’s Burgers, where the Belcher children go on a candy crusade. Those episodes feel seemingly pulled from my childhood and a perfect snapshot of the excitement, preparation, and magnitude centered around trick-or-treating for the 80s and 90s kid.
“When witches go riding, and black cats are seen, the moon laughs and whispers, ‘Tis Near Halloween.”– Unknown Author
While candy was the goal on Halloween as a kid, the costumes were the draw. As I mentioned, as a kid, we were excited about what we would wear. While I wore the werewolf mask many times, there were many years before, and after that, when I was a mummy, Dracula, or some other scary or random monster. They were great, less frightening, and more unique and movie-inspired as I got older, but the choices were endless as a kid. Well, endless, if you mean, my mom helped pick it out based on what she could create and what we had available. We were all a bunny at least once! We rarely bought store style costumes, just had the masks and our imagination. If it were not for old family photo albums, I might have forgotten some of the outfits my mother helped us construct and develop for trick-or-treating.
Halloweens of the past are wonderfully nostalgic. It always brings a smile to my face when I look at those photos or think about the decorations or experiences trick-or-treating with family and friends. Memories are excellent, but pictures are essential to help make sense of the image constructed in your head. This time of year always makes me think of younger me, my sister, decorations, and watching those scary television specials on VHS. But, as I grew older, Halloween became more than trick or treating. It was still all about the costume, but more importantly, the parties.
Ghost of Halloween’s Slightly More Recent
When I first started dating my wife, I went to Halloween parties as a single adult for years. I even won a costume contest once when I went dressed as Indian Jones – crushed it! Most parties were the same, but as I grew older, what drew me to this time a year started to wane. While the costumes were always fun, the candy was not necessary, the parties were blah, and the time of year had lost its luster. But after meeting my wife, the time of year sprang to life and with it a re-appreciation of autumn, the back-to-school feel, and of course, Halloween.
Together we explored the outdoors as the trees changed color; we went apple picking, and together felt the season’s power and importance. We both enjoyed the Halloween spirit. While my wife does not enjoy scary movies, she enjoyed decorating with pumpkins, fall scents, and handing out candy to trick-or-treaters while throwing on a festive witch hat or a ladybug antenna headband. While that is more the now, when we first started dating, we did get dressed up and go to parties, haunted hayrides, or haunted houses like the Factory of Terror in Fall River. Whether we lived in RI and I went to a work party dressed as a gangster, or lived in MA, and went to a party in Boston dressed as Brett Michaels from Rock of Love, or lived in Fall River, MA and went to a party as Owen Wilson’s character from Wedding Crashers – no matter the place or costume we always went all out and enjoyed ourselves and the moment. Thankfully we have photographic evidence of our Halloween memories.
“Halloween is an opportunity to be really creative.”– Judy Gold
One of my favorite Halloween’s with my wife in our early days together was our first Halloween. We spent it in my boyhood home where we could almost positively get dozens of trick-or-treaters, which my wife was hoping to see. It had been years since both of us had participated in the process of giving out tons of candy to kids. So, we bought the candy, even grabbed a couple of pumpkins to carve, and headed to the house to throw on some music, maybe a movie, and awaited the hordes of trick-or-treaters who were sure to come. Well, perhaps we had five kids show up that night. No matter, for two people who had been dating no more than four months but known each other for about a year, we took the time to chat, laugh, and carve some pumpkins outside under an October moon on Halloween.
Whether it was staying in and watching a movie and handing out candy or heading into the city with fantastic costumes, my wife and I did something for the first several years. But as time went on and we moved away to Hawaii, we focused on decorations, getting candy for trick-or-treaters, commenting on their costumes, and looking as festive as possible. Sometimes with a hat, mask, or something else, we sought to showcase our Halloween vibe and support with scary music playing in the background. When we moved back to the Northeast after a few years in Hawaii, we settled in Salem, MA. Almost immediately, our enjoyment for Halloween was injected with new life by the spooky city. You can’t live in Salem and not be taken over by what becomes a year-round mentality, with an explosion of events, tourists, and Halloween fun in October.
Halloween in Salem, MA
“There is magic in the night when pumpkins glow by moonlight.”– Author Unknown
For seven years, we lived in Salem, and in those first few years, our enjoyment of the Halloween season was through the roof. We lived right downtown in a historic old home, with views of the water and a front door perfect for handing out candy. As two individuals who enjoyed autumn, spending time outdoors, and walking to amenities, Salem offered all of this in spades. We could walk for dinner, drinks, entertainment, or staying inside near the ocean and listen to the sea and wind with the weather cooling. It was lovely, but once October 1st hit, the small city of Salem exploded with action. Almost every day, and at a high each weekend, it moved closer and closer to Halloween.
October in Salem is like something out of a novel. Several events, some of which are held in September to kick off the “Halloween Season,” are presented with both Fall and Halloween themes. In the early years of living in Salem, my wife and I would attend a high percentage of the events. Whether it was the Halloween Happenings kick-off parade, zombie walk, a movie in Salem Common, or our favorite, the Food Truck Festival held no less than one block from our home in Salem Common. It was held on the last weekend of September, and we would attend both Saturday and Sunday. We loved it! There were always tons of options, whether delicious fries, pizza, gyoza, falafel, grilled corn, and more. The festival was a perfect welcome to fall, allowing us to be outside amongst the community and eat delicious food. But, once October hit, the carnival rides arrived, outdoor food vendors opened, and the Witch Museum drew thousands of visitors. The city exploded with excitement, anticipation, and our little home near the water had people walking by it constantly, taking pictures, and commenting on our house and it’s sign of the historical owner, the beautiful street, and Salem in October. It didn’t need to be Halloween for thousands of people to be walking around; nope, Halloween was a month-long event.
In the weeks leading up to October 31, my wife and I would decorate the house with carved pumpkins, lights in the windows and stairs outside the side door, plastic pumpkins on top of tables, and cobwebs strung around the railing of the stairs outside our front door, with a smiling pumpkin on the front step. We loved putting some things up but not going overboard. The property wasn’t big enough for one of those inflatable dragons or monsters. Our motto was always to be festive but subtle, nothing grotesque or over the top. It was exhilarating as each passing day and weekend brought us and the city closer to Halloween. But that does not mean no activities were going on each day or weekend before. Every day had some action associated with Halloween, and the weekend grew much more extensive as we got closer to Halloween.
As I said, Halloween is a month-long event, and as we had a house very close to downtown, it was always a guest magnet. People loved to visit, see our decorated home, get dressed up, and walk downtown to experience all the activity. Getting dressed in a costume and enjoying the city could quickly occur on a Wednesday night or a Saturday morning. It is Salem in October; anything goes. In the early years of living in Salem, people visited frequently, and we had parties, walked around downtown, and just enjoyed the season.
But, Halloween, the actual day, when the masses descended on the city in large numbers and the party exploded along almost every street of downtown, that was a day usually reserved for my mother-in-law Mary. She had a standing invitation, mostly when it fell on the weekend, and in those early years, it did. Mary appreciated and enjoyed Halloween, and she is pretty awesome and entertaining to be around, so a standing invitation is not a surprise. She has a standing invitation to move in with us, so getting her to stay for Halloween is her throwing me some scraps! But, in all seriousness, if she wanted to come, she was welcome. So, for three years, from 2013 – 2015, my mother-in-law Mary, father-in-law Pat, and sister-in-law Kaitlyn traveled from NY to the spooky city of Salem to experience the insanity of Halloween.
Of all the years when people visited us, it was 2015, when we had what was probably our best Halloween in Salem. Halloween was on a Saturday. Mary, Pat, and Kaitlyn were in town. While Mary had come to Salem for her third year in a row (Mary Queen of Halloween-town!), 2015 saw my wife’s aunt Lisa and cousin Taylor come, because, as I always said, you have to experience Salem on Halloween, at least once. So, we had a large group this year, but Mary was the center of the show, and her excitement for being in the city on Halloween was incredible. We had one epic party that year with tons of food, pumpkin beer from, now closed, Salem Beer Works, my friend Sean stopped by, and some of my wife’s family living locally. We all got into the spirit of the occasion by getting into costume, and I feel that, in 2015, everyone brought their A-game.
My wife dressed as Liv Moore, the main zombie character from our all-time favorite shows, iZombie. On the other hand, I planned out and prepped what I felt and still feel is one of my best adult costumes. Yes, I crushed it as Brett Michaels and went full 80s as Marty McFly one year, and I already mentioned my Indiana Jones and Wedding Crasher’s outfits, but this year I went full video game character. I was introduced to the game Uncharted by my brother-in-law Kyle and regularly played the franchise’s first three games. So, knowing Kyle would be coming to Salem to celebrate, I decided to go as Nathan Drake, the main character from the game. Kyle loved it, and when the first set of trick-or-treaters arrived, one of them asked if I was Nathan Drake, my night, week, and year was vindicated! That night my wife and I threw an awesome party, handed out candy to hundreds of trick-or-treaters, walked around downtown, and danced on a side-street to live music – Halloween in Salem never ceased to be memorable.
In most of those years, we lived in Salem, the entire month of October, my wife and I almost seemed to enjoy every other day, more than actual Halloween. It was almost as if the preparation, the slow crawl or burn to the actual day, was far more enjoyable than the payoff. Especially those years when we had lots of guests who spaced out the month, and it seemed we had activity each weekend. But we lived here; we enjoyed the enthusiasm on the tourist’s faces, in their excitement to get dressed up, and their willingness to let Salem be Salem. When Halloween finally arrived, if it fell on a weekday or Mary was unable to join us, we stayed in, handed out candy, got dressed up, talked with our neighbors outside with a hot chocolate in one hand, and commented on the awesomeness of the costumes of little kids eager and excited to utter the phrase “trick or treat.” Most years, we provided candy, one year, we did a teal pumpkin, but we always tried to give those children something to look forward to and an experience similar to the ones we had as children.
In those years, when we had fewer visitors and spent the actual day in, handing out candy, that is when I reflected most on the Halloweens of my youth. From the decorations we displayed to the costumes we wore and the candy we handed out, to the excitement on the children’s faces wearing costumes they had selected – Halloween in Salem brought back my childhood excitement for the spooky fun the month can usher in. While our time in Salem can be looked back on with smiles and satisfaction, the Halloweens we had there will always be the best part of my memories of the city. I got to see so many people at their happiest. They were thrilled to dive into the spooky fun, their childhood fantasies by playing dress-up and celebrating amongst thousands of other people seeking to enjoy the holiday, for the most part, in the same way and for similar reasons.
Ghost of Halloween’s Present and Future
Since moving from Salem over a year now, we experienced our first Halloween in a new place this past October. It felt hollow, like something was missing. We moved into a temporary apartment and were unable to decorate like we usually do, no children came around for candy, and we didn’t get dressed up. The sale of our home had placed an enormous amount of stress on me, and celebrating anything, let alone Halloween, which we connected so significantly to our time in Salem, seemed depressing and unfulfilling. That says more about me, my emotional place, rather than my enjoyment or excitement about Halloween. Halloween got away from me last year, but I promised myself that I would move forward. The next place we lived would allow us the same comforts that I identify this time a year with and my past and passions.
Recently, we moved into a single-family home in a beautiful neighborhood with friendly neighbors and plenty of space. It is now the last day of September, and we have been decorating for fall and Halloween. I felt alive again and excited to celebrate what I can this Halloween season, even after many depressing months under this pandemic. While COVID maintains its hold, my wife and I are decorating the house for us, not for anyone else. We wish to remind ourselves who we are, what we enjoy, and what we had been missing since we moved from Salem, and possibly, things we missed that Salem made it challenging to enjoy. We have placed the plastic pumpkins in the front window, and LEGO Haunted House bought the fall scents/candles from SCENTSY and Bath & Body Works and bought pumpkins to carve and Halloween specific posters to hang up. But one thing we are putting out this year is our first inflatable Halloween decoration – a spooky Candy Corn. Something we would never have been able to showcase in Salem, but now can and serves as our attempt to recapture our enjoyment of this season and holiday.
I am not sure what Halloween will look like this year, but all I can do is decorate like nothing is different, even as I recognize nothing is the same. As I play the spooky music now over my UE BOOM 2 and sit here typing away, I grew more excited over the presence of this new Halloween, no matter how it looks. Even if there are no trick-or-treaters and no candy is necessary, it is still Halloween. My wife and I will decorate and give kids in the neighborhood something to look at and, possibly, see some semblance of normalcy in the everyday chaos. No matter what this Halloween brings, or even what Halloween next year becomes, I will try to reclaim a sense of positivity, even as I wade the water of low feelings.
Thankfully, I have experienced many great Halloweens, and those memories are powerful, as I am sure, by now, you are aware. Whether it was decorating our family home with my sister, carving pumpkins with my wife on our first Halloween together, or having family visit us in Salem as we joined the masses in celebration – memories are something I am not short of, but I wish to construct more. I know that in the future, Halloweens will come and go. Some will be wonderful, and some will be blah, but they will always be measured to Halloweens long since past, for good or bad.
Cover Image by David Menidrey on Unsplash