When I was a child, savvy corporate marketers had not yet realized the valuable commercial aspects of Halloween. There were no in-store displays, no special candy packaging, no store-bought costumes, not even a decorated plastic bag to carry. No, my generation had to tough it out with homemade costumes and a paper grocery bag.
Costumes required weeks of consideration, endless consultations with peers and finally, construction. Masks, purchased at the neighborhood drugstore, were hardened cardboard shaped in the Lone Ranger style, with a curved nose and a length of stretchy elastic to hold it on. Everyone wore the same mask which came in black or white. Black was cool; only ballerinas, brides and Cinderellas opted for white. Whichever color you got for your dime, the mask didn’t fit right. It impaired sight, itched the skin, tickled the nose, moved constantly and generally made disguise and walking — a challenge.
Halloween night all the porch lights blazed which gave the street a spooky glow. Masked children, in cut-down adult clothes saved from the rag man, tried not to break their necks as they climbed up and down cement steps in search of homemade cookies, candied apples, little squares of bubble gum, and boxes of raisins and, very rarely, real candy bars the full nickel size! No one envied the lucky few whose mothers or grandmothers had sewn costumes from Simplicity patterns. Everyone was equal; everyone got the same treats; everyone had fun.
Today, Halloween is more professional with factory-made costumes and every contrivance manufacturers can imagine with wigs, capes, false teeth; face paint, spray-on hair dye, and full face scary masks of Frankenstein, Dracula and Richard Nixon. Children carry flashlights and glow sticks, never wear ill-fitting masks, and use decorated plastic bags with convenient handles to collect fun-sized commercially produced candy. The paper window cutouts and cardboard skeletons from my day are now joined by recorded eerie music, fog machines and animated displays, as well as outdoor Halloween ornaments and lights suspiciously reminiscent of annual Christmas decorations.
No matter how decorated the streets, how beautiful the costumes, how safe the factory-wrapped candies, Halloween has become a homogenized ghost of its former self. In malls everywhere, Halloween arrives about a week after the Back-to-School promotions are moved out of the prime display area. Suddenly, the stores are invaded by witches, devils and vampires, and the world is awash in orange and black.
My first grandchild will be eleven this coming Halloween. So I have been involved in his Halloweens for more than a decade. Some years we endured heat waves to get to the closest Disney store. There, for the cost of my annual car registration fee, were racks of child-sized versions of Disney cartoon characters such as Peter Pan, Tiger, Pooh, and Cinderella. The costumes were movie-production quality even though they would only be worn for the same amount of time it takes to watch an animated feature less than two hours!
I am a Halloween Helper at my daughter’s house every year. I dispense candy to neighborhood goblins, monitor the Eerie Sounds Tape and, of course, take dozens of photos of my grandsons. All the while, I mourn for the loss of simplicity and grieve that my grandsons will never know the joy of walking around in their father’s cut-down pants, old shirt and tattered hat. I lament the absence of homemade chocolate chip cookies and fudge squares wrapped in wax paper. But, most of all, I fret that nobody gets hand-dipped candy apples anymore.