Ah, Halloween! Time for a deliciously good scare or two, or maybe a few treats and tricks. But first, I must say this: Happy Birthday, Mom!
I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with Halloween. As a little kid, I certainly did my share of getting in drag and harassing neighbors for candy. This would ultimately morph into an activity I call “trick or beer.” It’s the same idea, only you’re looking to cadge something besides candy corn and it’s probably a good idea not to wear a mask while you’re doing it.
Both trick or treat and trick or beer can have dire consequences for the unwary. When I was about nine, I overdosed on a bunch of caramel squares I got for Halloween, eating something like 36 of them in as many minutes, with results that rivaled Linda Blair’s performance in “The Exorcist”. I wouldn’t become that spectacularly ill again until my freshman year in college at my very first fraternity kegger. I also found out that the difference between candy and beer is that I could drink beer a few days after that night of heinous over-indulgence, yet I couldn’t so much as look at a caramel square for nearly two decades.
The greatest thing about Halloween, however, is the fun one can have scaring the pants off people. I remember an infamous Halloween in college when my basketball player buddy donned a black trench coat and witch mask and proceeded to create the most satisfying screams and shrieks all over campus, just by peering into windows and bursting into dorm rooms. I’ll never forget our first victim, a pretty young sorority girl who glanced out of her dorm room window while talking on the phone only to meet the leering gaze of 6’9” witch staring back at her from outside her window. I think her scream broke windows in three dormitories.
Of course, one needs to be careful. There’s a plethora of “Halloween Pranks Gone Bad” videos on YouTube, usually featuring a startled victim round housing the poor schlub who scared him into unconcsciousness. Of course, this is nothing new, either. Family apocrypha maintains the story of one of our relatives – a great uncle of mine, I believe — around the turn of the 20th century who thought it would be a good idea to scare his little brother, one eerie twilit evening. The little brother, already leery of being out near dark, had been ordered by his mother to take a pot of soup to their sick neighbor. The only route between the farms was a path that meandered through a stretch of woods bordered by a sinister swamp.
The older brother, ever sensitive to his younger sibling’s fears, promptly snatched a sheet off the clothesline and hid in the woods along the path, waiting for just the right moment to rise moaning from the bushes.
A few minutes later, the younger brother came stampeding into the house breathless and wild-eyed and screaming at the top of his lungs, “Momma! Momma! I done kilted me a ghost!”
What big brother did not know was that little brother, afraid of hostile encounter with a swamp haint, had armed himself with a shovel – and when the ghost rose from the poke salad bushes, he swung for the fence. Mother found ghost, shovel, and sheet a few minutes later right where they had fallen. After a good laugh, she put the shovel in the barn, sheet on the line, and ghost into bed with an ice pack over his face.
But you know, little kids, big kids, entire geographic populations can be sent screaming into the streets if you do it right. Orson Welles certainly scared the doots out of the entire country with his radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ , “The War of the Worlds” in 1938. He, of course, jazzed up the story a little. Instead of Martians landing in the English countryside, Orson had them landing in places like Hobboken, New Jersey – a place I really wouldn’t have that much of a problem giving up to the Martians, as long as they promised to let us know what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa — and the resulting chaos was incredible. All over the country, people ran wild. In many areas, municipal water authorities, for example, reported water towers full of bullet holes the next day – they apparently looked like Martian war machines in the dark.
I sometimes wonder if someone could pull off a hoax like Wells’ broadcast in this our technologically savvy world. Probably not, simply because most of us are so cynical that even if it were true, we would still just roll over in bed and mutter a crusty, “Yeah, whatever,” only to wake up hours later to find Martians munching on our living room couches.
So anyway, happy Halloween! Watch out for Martians, ghosts, and basketball players in drag…