Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Trick or Treat!! I've done you the favor of dressing up in a $3 Power Ranger costume and traipsing through your yard, now give me some candy!"

I guess I've lived in cities too long because I'd forgotten how nuts suburbanites get about their Halloween decorations. Seriously, once that first leaf of autumn hits the ground, these people are in their yards glue-gunning everything that doesn't move in orange and black. As I was driving the other day, I saw this guy on a 15 ft ladder adhering a giant bat to the front of his house. The thing was as big as him. The teenager in me wanted to stop and yell "Commissioner Gordon, the Joker's escaped from Arkham again!! He's running amuck in downtown Gotham!!" so that he'd turn around to see who the moron making Batman jokes on a busy street was and possibly fall. But I didn't because, frankly, as far as yelling random crap out of a vehicle, that's pretty lame. Very few people are going to appreciate a good Commissioner Gordon joke. Especially not after a hard day, like this guy clearly had. You don't volunteer to scale your house to staple a giant rodent onto it unless you've got some thinking to do.

But he's just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. There's this family in my sister's neighborhood that, I suspect, spent upwards of $10,000 on their decorations. I was walking Camilla to school and saw this Halloween extravaganza going up in their yard. Seriously, these people had specialty lights being put up and a surround sound stereo system being hidden in the bushes and trees. They had gravestones and witches' cauldrons. They had ghosts and goblins, and a lawn decoration so life-like that, I swear to god, they're paying some dude to stand perfectly still in their yard dressed as the killer from Scream on the off chance he might make a little kid crap his pants a week from now.

I don't get it. To make that kind of effort, you either have to really hate kids and want to scare the bejesus out of them (which I don't understand. Kids are little treasures) or you have to really love them and want to give them a special, special Halloween (which I don't get either. Kids aren't "all that." All they do is waste 40 minutes of your time explaining the plot of the Care Bears Movie which is itself only 45 minutes long or they tell you this endless story about what they would do if they were a pony. I've got some bad news for you - you're not a pony and you never will be!!).

For that matter, I just don't get the Halloween thing in general. I've always seen it as the worst of all the holidays (and yes, that's including Arbor Day). First of all, it gives grown men free license to say "Spooooky!!" which has always creeped me out. But more than that, it's just an artificial creation of the candy and costume conglomerates to sell products of some nature (I'm not really sure what I'm saying here. I read it on some website once and it sounded really smart. I don't think I'm telling it right.) Halloween used to be about something - worshipping our Dark Lord. But now it's too commercial. It's all about eating candy corn until you want to puke and running around dressed as Hannah Montana until you're asked by everyone at David Lucas's party to please leave.

Point is, I've somehow lost my love of Halloween over the years. But most people still have it. Not just the kids, either. Even people my age still get excited about dressing up. So I guess this post is for all the people who feel left out on All Hallow's Eve.

Looking back, I can see how the love of Halloween has been slowly and painfully smothered inside of me. It seems that ever since I can remember those last few days of October have been one train-wreck after another in my life. Here are a few of the more formative Halloween experiences that have made me the bitter, bitter man I am today:

1983, Age 5, Atlanta, GA: My grandparents (my dad's parents this time) take me, my sister and my two cousins to a local haunted house. Apparently good judgment is not a strong suit in my family because this trip was destined for some kind of calamity from the start. First, my grandfather has never, in the time I've known him, been in good health (several kinds of cancer as well as several strokes and heart conditions). Second, this haunted house wasn't some mom and dad in lame costumes making you put your hand in a bowl of spaghetti. This was a hardcore operation run by a bunch of college students. I guess we should have figured it out from the hour long line and the people drinking from a keg on the front lawn. But there we were, a bunch of young kids and our senile companions waiting alongside the varsity volleyball team.

Looking back on it (and I don't know if this is just the effect that time has on the memory) but this haunted house was the single scariest experience of my life. The people who put that thing together were geniuses and I salute them. As you got closer to the house, all you could hear was terror-filled screaming. Men. Women. It didn't matter. Everyone was screaming like little girls. So the anticipation and anxiety grew. When you finally got to go into the house, you entered through the kitchen. There an old lady stood by the stove, stirring a huge pot. She asked us if we'd like some of her soup and beckoned us to come and look. Inside the pot was a real human head. It opened its eyes, looked right at me and pleaded for help. Boom, right there, it's already the scariest thing that a five year old can handle.

My grandparents, aghast at what they've just seen, hurry us out of the kitchen into the hall. Big mistake. The hall is pitch black. Then all of a sudden, a strobe light kicks on and, I kid you not, a maniac with a chainsaw comes at us from out of nowhere! This guy, wearing the Leatherface mask, pops out of the living room and starts waving a real, running chainsaw at us! A real chainsaw! Of course, they'd taken the chain off, but we didn't know that at the time. And you don't stop to ask questions when you're a little kid and your grandparents have just delivered you into a den of hell! "Hey, are you guys operating within the relevant state and local safety requirements?!" Nope, when you're that age, you cry and run like hell. That's what we did. It was pandemonium. All of us kids ran for it in different directions. My grandparents just stood there in disbelief (or having massive heart attacks. Frankly, I didn't care. It was every man for himself.)

I'm not really sure what happened to everybody else because I ran into the bathroom and locked the door. All I know is that I stood there shaking, sweating and gently weeping for quite a while. Apparently they had to close down the entire house to look for me. I remember a bunch of people angrily banging on the door saying "Kid, are you in there!" but I wasn't answering. Not today, Demons! I know your tricks! Anyway, finally my grandparents came and claimed me and we all left that place of great evil. Lessons learned? 1) young southern men are very scary. 2) never trust your grandparents. And 3) being terrified was never going to be fun again.

1984, Age 6, Norfolk, MA:

We had just moved to Massachusetts from Georgia a few months prior to Halloween and as yet my sister and I were still attempting to make new friends. Let's just say that this Halloween did not help that effort. My mother, God bless her - she's the sweetest woman you could ever meet and she means well, but sometimes she just misses the boat on certain things. At that time she was going through this health kick (she'd given up eating meat, she was baking her own bread, she wouldn’t allow us to have sugar cereal and the only soda in the house was Tab. Yes, I know. You don't have to tell me. Our group meets on Tuesday in the basement of the town rec center if you'd like to join us).

So we're the new people in the neighborhood. All the kids are excited to see what the new people will bring to the party. Will they give out those lame Dum-Dum pops? Or will they be like the Metzgers and give out whole Snickers bars and cans of Pepsi? (We really had a house that did this every year. Voted best house in the neighborhood 25 years running) Nope, not us. The new people, well, we're taking the long view. We're looking at the bigger picture. So this year, kids, we're handing out little boxes of raisins and packets of sugarless gum! Hurray for cavity prevention and essential nutrients!! Long story short, we woke up the next day with raisins and gum strewn all over our yard and zero friends. Lessons learned: 1) to avoid picking raisins out of your tailpipe for the next three years, always give out the good candy. And 2) I was going to have to make friends the hard way - bribing them with my best GI Joes. Thank you, Sergeant Slaughter and William "The Refrigerator" Perry limited edition action figures. You've done your country proud.

1989, Age 11, Norfolk:

My parents were never much into Halloween. We always had pathetic decorations. Our pumpkin looked like it was carved as a warm-up for some future and more adequate pumpkin. And we only ever hung up two things, both on our front door - a cardboard spider-web complete with smiling spider and a happy cardboard skeleton whose limbs could be positioned in any number of whacky arrangements, but who only ever hung there limp and defeated. Also, he was missing his left leg at the knee. I liked to pretend that the spider took it and was only smiling due to her ghoulish amputation, but I don't think that that was the obvious storyline for most people. Instead, I think it said, "Welcome to Half-Ass-O-Ween" And about our family, I think it said, "Hey, we're totally non-threatening! Come and knock on our door! This is a happy home which may or may not have candy inside. Come on, take your chances! You could get Blow-Pops! Or you could get pamphlets on the dangers of sugar on a child's development! You never know!"

Point is, I think that's what it takes for a child to really enjoy Halloween - parents who are super into it. It's genetic in a way. Like high-blood pressure or racism. And the gene definitely wasn't passed down to me. Nowhere was this more apparent than when it came to costumes. We weren't big planners in my house. Most costumes were concocted the night before and tended to be more abstract concepts of costumes than costumes themselves.
"What do you want to be?"
"I don't know."
"Let's see. . . .I have a tablecloth. You want to go as that?"
"What, a table?"
"Ooh, that’s it. You could carry a basket and go as a Picnic! That's perfect!"

Other years, no effort was put in whatsoever. One year, my costume consisted of black dress pants and a black turtle neck. You guessed it - I was a Ninja! Sure, I had no weapons and you could see my face, but I was a more laid-back, casual kind of ninja - the kind who wouldn't be all up in your business; the kind of ninja you call up to help you move from your studio apartment or watch the short film you just made for art school. Another year I wore a garbage bag and an old-man mask. We didn't even bother naming it. And to my shame, no one asked me. I guess it was just too pathetic to even be curious about. "What are you little boy, the product of absentee parenting?"

This particular year, for some reason my mom got really psyched up for Halloween (maybe my school called her in to talk to a counselor or something). She handmade my costume weeks before Halloween. She spent days putting it together. It was hand-sewn and really nice. Unfortunately, it was a scarecrow costume (you know, from the Wizard of Oz) with big, fat felt "representations" of straw, a pair of overalls with big, fat cuffs and a big straw hat. The ensemble was completed with some red make-up for the blushing cheeks. This would have been adorable if I was 5 or 6. As it happened, I was 11 and everyone else my age was dressed up as Freddy Kruger (with the realistic glove with knives) or Robocop. It was completely humiliating. We had to wear our costumes to school that day and everyone just kind of ignored me. For the first time I understood what it must have felt like to be one of the weird Turkish kids that went to my school and had to be excused every time we watched a film strip or went to recess. But even those kids had a better costume that day - they were dressed as weird Turkish kids. It was one of the most awkward days in my life - from having my cheek rouge smear after bobbing for apples to getting in an imagination fight with one of the Robocops in which he used his machine gun and I had to explain to him how I was using the "power of straw" to defeat his metal body armor. Lessons learned: 1) straw will very rarely beat titanium body armor, and 2) dressing up for Halloween sucks!

1991, Age 13, Long Valley, NJ:

I had given up on dressing up or trying to be cool. This year was all about candy. It was my last year of trick-or-treat eligibility. I was almost to high school and therefore almost to the cut-off when it stops being cute and starts getting severely creepy. But I put all of those concerns aside because we had moved into candy heaven! The year before we'd moved to the town adjacent to Hackettstown, New Jersey, home of the M&M Mars manufacturing plant. A ton of the people in my town were employees of M&M Mars and, as such, gave away such ridiculous portions of candy it should have been criminal. It was the equivalent of moving next door to a crack house where friendly crackheads would just pelt you with crack and pipes every time you left your house. That's how it felt as a kid, anyway. They gave away every M&M product under the sun. And we're not talking the mini size. We're not even talking regular, human being size. Every family was handing out King Size Twix, MilkyWay, Snickers, Butterfingers, Whatchamucallits, Younameits, Andsoforths, Etceteras. . .

What made this year doubly exciting was that M&M had just had a test product on the market that year that hadn't caught on, so they discontinued it and gave away the entire stock to its employees. What was the product? You probably don't remember this one, but it's engrained in my head like the first time I saw Star Wars or my first set of real, live boobs (Austria, 1985 - thank you, loose European moral standards!) - The PB Max! It was great! If you don't remember it, it was peanuts and peanut butter on a cookie and the whole thing was covered in chocolate. And it was huge (thus the Max part). It was about the size of a cheeseburger. God it was awesome! My favorite candy of all time. People still talk about it. Google it and you'll see conversations of lonely, desperate people still longing for its pound and a half of deliciousness.

Because it was discontinued, families brought home box after box of these things and they were giving them away by the armful. I tell you, people, it was the perfect storm. By this time, I had perfected my trick-or-treating (Can we stop calling it this, please? It's stupid and too hard to write. Can we just call it what it really is, candy grubbing or sugar extortion?). I didn't carry the idiotic plastic pumpkin basket (which is full after, what, like 5 houses) or even the paper bag (which is too prone to ripping) like an amateur. No, I went with the biggest pillow case in the house that could go a solid 6/7 hours and still be only a quarter full. And I didn't bother with big, bulky costumes that only hinder a serious extortionist. I just put some baby powder in my hair and went as an older version of myself. I loaded up, my friends. And my neighbors were happy to oblige. Those people had been gorging themselves on PB Max's for two or three day at that point and were happy to unload what they had on us. I had a guy, towards the end of the night, who just handed me an entire box. He didn't even say a word. We just looked into each other's eyes and we both knew what was happening.

Long story short, I have what doctors like to call "a lack of self control." I went bat-shit crazy with those things. I ate so many that my heart started palpitating. So I drank a soda and continued on. It was brutal. By the end, I had taken three things that I loved dearly in this world - chocolate, peanut butter, and cookies - and made a travesty of them. I made myself violently ill and I couldn't even stand to look at them for months afterward. Lessons learned: 1) I cannot be trusted, and 2) candy was never going to be the same.

And it wasn't. Since that day, I've never really rediscovered my love of candy. Don't get me wrong, I'm no deviant. If I run into a Crackel, you'd better believe I'll be eating it. But I just don't go out of my way for it anymore. That's how all of Halloween is for me. If trick-or-treaters come to my house, sure, I'll give them some candy. But I refuse to play the little head game of announcing what each kid is as I give them candy - as in "Ooh, we have what looks like a Pirate, and. . . .I think, a SpongeBob and oh, is this little Princess? Which one are you, Jasmine?" - because I didn't sign up for this to be a test of my knowledge of pop-culture and Disney cartoons and you already know what you are, kid - you don't need me to tell you. And if your costume sucks (like all of mine did) and no one knows what you are, I feel your pain and won't be asking you. Because I know every other person you've encountered today already has. And I know that basket is part way filled with candy and the rest of the way filled with shame.

So let's just make this painless. I hand you a wad of sugar, you say "thank you" and then get off my property, because I am this close to becoming one of those people who just leaves a giant bowl of crappy candy on the porch and turns the lights out. No one wants that. There are no winners in that scenario. I guess what I'm saying is that I'll respect your traditions, you Halloweeners, but I won't love them. In short, you'll probably never find me in my yard saying to myself "If I put it here, will the ghost block the view of the vampires from the sidewalk?"

If you’re like me, just try to humor those around you. Some day they’ll learn their lessons too. And if you're one of the one's who loves it, then I hope you can keep that love and pass it down to your annoying, spoiled kids. And they theirs. Either way, have a Happy Halloween.

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