At this wonderful time of year for horror fans, our nostalgia for costumed escapades long past, fiends seldom seen, and old scares lightened by candy corn chuckles by the warm glow of the jack o'lantern, renews our spirits at a time of year when we open our doors--of our own free will--to the terrors by night. And laugh.
Join in the memories as the League of Tana Tea Drinkers reminisces on those terrors that come dressed in polyester, gauze, and rubber, brazenly bellowing with all their devilish might, in syllables to chill the night, "Trick or Treat!"
...From Jeff Allard, Dinner With Max Jenke Blog
Halloween Meltdown. For the duration of my trick or treating years (1975-1981), I never wore a really great costume. When I was a younger kid, dressing up as Spider-Man or Captain Marvel was admittedly wonderful – no matter how chintzy the store-bought outfits may have been – but as time went on, I felt that I wasn’t living up to my full Halloween potential. Finally, in the fall of 1978 I saw an opportunity for all that to change. A few weeks before Halloween that year, as I walked through a Kaybee’s toy store with my mother, I spotted an actual, honest-to-God, officially sanctioned make-up kit for The Incredible Melting Man. The film – about an ill-fated astronaut who returns from a space mission only to find that he’s melting away – had been released the year before and even though it had tanked, I had no concept of the success or failure of movies back then. I just knew that it had come out and that it had looked absolutely awesome. I remember excitedly gawking at MM’s melted mug on the cover of Famous Monsters and knowing that this had to be one of the scariest movies ever made – I had no capacity at the time to discern that it was likely to be utter shit. In that regard I can’t be so hard on myself because honestly, Rick Baker’s make-up for the titular melting menace was so badass that it single-handedly sold the movie as a must-see.
Thanks to my protective mother, though, I never saw TIMM in the theaters (to be fair, the chances are good that even if she had offered to take me, I might’ve been too scared to go through with it). And even to this day I’ve never seen it, not even on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But the iconic sight of that Baker-designed face has been seared into my memories since 1977 as indelibly as that of any ‘classic’ monster. And on that day in ‘78, I saw my golden chance to become the talk of the neighborhood by transforming my face into the glistening visage of The Incredible Melting Man. As I looked at the picture of MM on the cover of that box in all his dripping glory, I knew that’s exactly how I was going to look. I pictured that head sitting on my shoulders. There would be no discrepancy between the image on the box and how I’d look once that make-up was applied. The kit was designed by make-up maestro Rick Baker himself and I knew that he’d make the process of becoming The Incredible Melting Man an easily accomplished one.
I’d never be able to find that out first hand, however, because as soon as I called my mother’s attention to what I wanted, she made it clear that she would not allow me to be the Melting Man. After one look at the oozing edifice on the front of the box and examining the array of materials pictured on the back, my mother told me that there was no way I was putting any of this on my face. I tried to argue, being adamant that there was no potential harm in whatever materials were used in the kit but she was sure that something in that make-up would cause some kind of reaction in my skin, that there must be unknown chemicals that would leave me permanently marked (I shouldn’t have been surprised – after all, this was the same woman who adamantly refused to buy me a chemistry set for fear of exposure to deadly materials) or that it would drip into my mouth or eyes and we’d have to spend Halloween in the emergency room. There was nothing I could do to convince her otherwise.
When Halloween finally came a few weeks later, I didn’t see any Melting Men walking the streets (my only solace in the situation) so maybe my mother’s reaction wasn’t a unique one. I can’t even remember now what my own costume was that year. I’m sure I settled for a full-head Wolf Man mask or something. Whatever it was, my heart wasn’t it. Once we left Kaybee’s without that make-up kit, I was done caring. I wanted to walk the night looking like someone had poured a bucket of dripping snot on my head – I was looking for the kind of memory that would last a lifetime.
In 1978, my chance to live that dream came and went and with it my hopes of Halloween greatness melted away for good.
When it comes to Halloween, I was a lucky kid. Certainly a lot luckier than kids since then—and that’s not just the bitter grumblings of an aging GenXer. You see, I grew up at the tail end of the Golden Age of Halloween, when October 31st was all about kids. Unlike today, when adults—perhaps longing for their childhoods—have co-opted it, and a paranoid media has robbed it of its innocence.
During the period stretching from the 1950s to the early 1980s, Halloween was a veritable Autumn Wonderland, rivaling even Christmas itself as the best time of year to be a kid. For all you youngsters out there, this meant that the entire holiday existed solely as a means for children to dress up and get free candy. No one was afraid to open their doors, everyone had a giant bowl of treats by the window, and the streets were teeming with hordes of tiny people in cheap plastic masks and jumpsuits.
My heyday of trick-or-treating encompassed 1975 through 1986, a little longer than I’m comfortable with admitting (yes, I was a bit of a nancy boy). Those were the closing years of Halloween’s Golden Age, and fortunately I just made it under the wire.
Although my parents suited me up from my very first Halloween, the earliest one I can remember is Halloween 1977, when, at nearly three years of age, I paraded down Bensonhurst’s 67th Street in one of those classic old-school Ben Cooper Superman costumes, the kind with the masks that you couldn’t see or breath through, with elastic bands that snapped with the slightest amount of pressure.
Those cheapo 5-and-10 store costumes were the standard back then. In fact, I can remember the first year I didn’t wear one. That would be in the first grade, when I got decked out in a homemade Dracula costume, complete with vampire makeup applied by my mom. I made a deal with my best friend, who was going out as a giant bat. At the school Halloween party, we pretended to be the same person—I’d disappear, then he’d pop up out of nowhere, as if I had simply transformed myself. Pretty clever for six-year-olds.
That was the same year I got into a schoolyard argument with another friend of mine. We were telling each other what our costumes were going to be. Problem was, the kid came from an Italian household and could hardly speak English. On top of that, he had a speech impediment. Naturally, he became exasperated when I had no idea what “The Oak” was. He even gave me a clue: it was a superhero. Batman, I asked? “No, the Oak.” Spider-Man? “NO. The Oak.” I think it took a good 15 minutes before I figured out it was the Hulk.
But by far, my greatest Halloween regret came the following year, when my mom took the initiative and—knowing my love of Star Wars—tried to surprise me by picking up a costume on her own. What she didn’t take into account was that I had only seen the original. For whatever reason, I had missed out on going to see The Empire Strikes Back the year before. So when she came home with a Yoda costume, I was reduced to tears, since I had no idea who the little guy was! Even worse, she took me down to the store to exchange it, at which point the clerk recommended I go as some obscure character called Boba Fett. I wound up picking C-3PO, which isn’t all that bad, but if I knew then what I know now…
By the fifth grade, I kind of knew I was starting to push it. As I pulled on my Ben Cooper He-Man getup, I’ll be honest and say, for the first time, I felt a little bit silly. That silly feeling, however, was still outweighed by the promise of Runts, Nerds, Pop Rocks, Bottlecaps and Jolly Ranchers by the handful.
But my level of maturity wasn’t the only thing undergoing noticeable change. More and more, there began to creep into the popular consciousness a certain wariness about Halloween. Stories of candy being tampered with, apples containing hidden razorblades and so on had been around long before I was born. But for a variety of reasons, they gained a lot more traction in the early to mid 1980s. I think it had something to do with the infamous rash of Tylenol poisonings in 1982, as well as a rising level of crime in urban centers like New York, where I grew up. Parents were fearing for their kids’ safety, and the media was happily feeding into that fear, perpetuating the myth that trick-or-treating was somehow unsafe.
Still, the good times weren’t quite over yet. I managed to drag the whole costume thing out for another two years. For some reason, I just never felt the urge to take part in that other Halloween activity so many of my friends were hanging up their costumes in favor of by that point, a tradition among kids going back a lot further than the modern commercialized concept of trick-or-treating. We called it “bombing”—pelting property and each other with eggs and shaving cream, mainly. I found it repulsive then, as I do now.
There were more Halloween parties going on in those later years, as we approached being what would now be known as “tweens”. My fondest memory of those was one I attended in the sixth grade—when, dressed as Zorro, I spent most of the afternoon talking over the loud music with the younger sister of one of my classmates, who I developed something of a crush on. Sadly, she died of leukemia less than a year later. To this day, I can’t hear A-Ha’s “Take on Me” without thinking of that party.
When I think back to those days, I can’t help but feel a little sad for my own kids. Now, when we dress them up in their much-better-quality costumes, my wife and I almost feel like we’re in the minority in our neighborhood. Almost gone are the wandering crowds of basket-carrying children. Many parents don’t even bother. Those who do confine their trick-or-treating to the local stores, no longer trusting their own neighbors—who in turn, are more than a little nervous about opening their own doors. It’s much more controlled and confined now. The fear-mongers have won.
Today, it’s the grown-ups who seem to get more excited, tramping around from one masquerade party to the next. It’s as if we’re living in some kind of post-modern Renaissance. Some spend much more time pondering this year’s costume than I ever did as a kid. And yes, I’m not above taking part in it myself. But more than anything else, that’s because I miss those days when Halloween was the most fun day of the year. I guess deep down, we all do.
My favorite Halloween took place in the Haunted Tunnels of Monroe Hill, now called Brown College, at the University of Virginia. We converted the tunnels which connected the residential buildings of my dorm into an insane horror attraction, and I played an unhinged preacher, welcoming guests into hell. Part of the fun of course, was the fact that a great deal of malt liquor was involved.
I remember one of our crew had a chainsaw with the chain taken off, which he would fire up and scrape down a chain link fence, scaring the bejeezus out of folks. Another guy, a friend of mine, dressed up as a clown and tried to hug everyone. "Clowns need love too!" he'd shout. Simple and odd as that sounds, he was actually very, very disturbing. The attraction was briefly halted when a couple of firefighters arrived after the chainsaw fumes set off the smoke alarm. They walked through the entire tunnel system, shaking their heads, while college kids dressed as ghouls and goblins milled around outside. The director of the attraction said later that they found an ugly deathtrap about every 15 feet through the entire maze. But we eventually fixed the thing up so it wouldn't asphyxiate anyone or burn them with melted plastic, and went back to our job. It was fun.
Smell. Virgin costumes to haunt the night and release the prisoned spirit yearning to be more than a corporate cubical zombie, a government ghoul, a political science major. Taste. Candy corn and sugared ghosts drenched in rich darkness, washed down with beer, or soda, or stronger spirits enticing you to one night's naughtiness. Hear. Cries of delight, and fright, and giggly laughter to ward off the spooks, or cuddle closer, or gobble down sweet moments of ecstasy until your stomach aches. Touch. Touch? How do you touch memories? So many. Reach out, grab one, hold it fast. Got it!
Touch. Rewind the years, go back, back, stop. My senses kick in. There's the smell of melting wax, a whiff of stiff cardboard box mingled with plastic, and what is this? ...some dark, dank mad laboratory filled with fiendish delights and devices--my grandmother's kitchen. And monsters! I smell monsters. I own them heart and waxy soul courtesy of one very understanding and supportive Uncle Bob. Dismayed? Yes. Why spend money on this? he thought. I knew. But he shrugged it off and bought Emenee's Formex 7 Casting Set for me anyway. Deep down he understood the need.
We each have that special memory tucked away in our closets. Lying under all those clothes, and shoes, and shoulder bags we thought were the one. It shakes free every now and then, glares at us, reminds us, nudges us, accuses us with--fill in your own remembrance here, the special thing you should never forget but sort of did--until we cry uncle. And remember.
This is my memory, wrapped in orange cellophane, of one special Halloween where monsters were mine to make. Like Victor Frankenstein meddling with the life force, I was filled with maniacal glee as I poured the melted wax into the molds. But I had monsters where he had only one. And I could paint them in colors of my choosing. Green creature? Why? Why not red? Dull looking mummy? Why? Why not a bright color to cheer him up? No electronic voices for them, only mine to make them speak. No blinking lights or digital special effects, just water colors, brush, and whatever fiendish contraptions I could find in my grandmother's mad laboratory.
Armed with my own monsters tucked away into back pockets--oops, how'd Dracula get bent in half? oh, right, wax--in front pockets, with pillow--I mean trick or treat bag--in hand, and Ben Cooper costume making my disguise complete, I was ready for the candies by night and their sweet terrors; and all the years to follow, with all their Halloweens to come.
What memories do you have of Halloween?