Halloween is probably my favorite “holiday,” although I guess it’s not really a holiday; it’s … more of a season, filling that lonely space between summer and Christmas with pumpkin-flavored everything.
I had one transcendent Halloween experience as a child. It happened in the first year I was allowed to trick-or-treat without a grownup or tagging behind an older sibling. I was eight-years-old and dressed as a witch.
My mother teased my long brown hair and used lipstick to “blacken” out one of my front teeth (the other was already missing). I wore one of her old black frocks (she had a few), and a genuine witch’s hat that I was convinced had once belonged to an actual witch (in my family, I felt this was a distinct possibility). My hat was cumbersome. It kept dipping down a little too low over my head, pirate-style.
(photo credit: Paige Cody)
My friend Jeannie and I trick-or-treated by ourselves all up and down Main Street and then stopped at the village school for the costume contest. Jeannie was also dressed as a witch. I kept tripping over my baggy black dress and hiking it up with one hand, while I clutched my paper bag of treats in the other.
Jeannie and I went onto the school’s tiny stage together and held hands and pranced around in our costumes – very full of ourselves and emboldened by our bags full of candy -- and our freedom on this night.
There was a full moon. Of course there was. My memory insists upon this. In my hometown, Halloween night can often be a washout of freezing rain or the first wet snow of the season, but on this night it was clear and cold.
Jeannie and I then did something we probably should not have done. (Doesn’t every fright story start like this?) We left the denser part of Main Street and decided to top off our overflowing bags and hit just two more houses on the “other side” of the little one-pump gas station. (When you’re a kid, you mentally map out your territory; this was beyond ours.)
Out just beyond the last streetlight of the village, the bare trees with their clacking limbs seemed extra-spooky, and instead of sticking to the road, we decided to cut through the (large) cornfield that connected my family’s farm to the village.
The corn had been harvested and now the field was pockmarked with the sharp rubble of dried stalks: row upon row of dark daggers sticking up out of the ground.
Just as we entered the cornfield. A gunshot rang out. We screamed. I tripped on my costume and fell. Jeannie pulled me up. We raced and stumbled across the field and toward the dark outlines of our barn and house.
[I think that even at that early age, I’d already started narrating my own life in my head, and I framed the scene, with its trenchant visuals, as something from the film strip that at that time was all I had of my short life. In fact, when I saw the movie To Kill a Mockingbird a couple of years later, I was struck by how much the climatic Halloween scene in that movie mirrored my own.]
Jeannie and I burst into the kitchen, out of breath and crying. I had lost a shoe. My brown paper bag had ripped and spilled penny candy across the yard.
My mother was sitting with Jeannie’s mother at the kitchen table (they were close friends). They were drinking coffee from chipped china cups and my mother was smoking her evening cigarette.
We breathlessly told them what had happened. Mom reminded me that deer hunting season would start soon (thus, the gunshot). Then she removed my hat and smoothed down my hair. She agreed that we’d had a terrifying experience, but I could tell that she was humoring me.
(My mother’s parenting style was a genius balance of total validation and skepticism.)
“Let’s get right to the point,” she said.
She pulled down the big wooden bowl from its perch atop the refrigerator, and brushed it out (it was often covered with a fine film of fur, because our cat liked to sleep in it).
I emptied what was left of my Halloween candy into the bowl. Even with my loss, there was a surprising amount left. I knew I had to “pay the house” from my bounty, and I nervously watched my mother as she picked through the Neco wafers, Smarties, fireballs and popcorn balls, found a full-size Mars bar — and placed it next to her coffee cup.
Like much else in my hometown, Halloween sends me time-traveling back, mainly because so little has changed.
As dusk falls, little fairies, Disney characters, sexy cats and super heroes still stumble down the sidewalk, slipping on wet leaves, guided by their parents (I don’t see many little witches or bed-sheet ghosts these days, however).
The teenagers always go with gore.
For me, gore evokes horror.
On Halloween, I prefer that chilly feeling leftover from my childhood — that spine-tingly feeling of being just a little bit scared.
With a candy chaser.
What I’m watching:
Hitchcock’s masterpiece of small-town suspense: Shadow of a Doubt. Joseph Cotton’s brilliant portrayal of a favorite uncle who also happens to be a psychopath is thrilling and chilling.
What I’m reading:
I LOVE “nordic noir,” and Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo is a master of the genre. Washed-out detective Harry Hole is on the trail of a serial killer whose method-of-choice is the knife. (THIS BOOK IS WHY I COULDN’T CARVE A JACK-O-LANTERN THIS YEAR.)
Railey Jane Savage’s JUNK FOOD:
The Finch, The Ham, A Sheet & Its Alien
“Halloween is upon us. Sweet kids, tricksy pranksters, and convivial adults will troll the streets, awash in the glow of sanctioned mischief. In theory, I love it. In practice… There’s something about masks that unnerves me. Utterly. Whence this anxiety? And why am I so comfortable with Covid-masking, given this aversion? (Seinfeld voice:) I mean, what is the deal?!
I feel compelled to state that this essay is not meant to assign camps amongst readers between pro-, or anti-mask: I am interrogating what it is about Halloween’s full-face masks that make me so uneasy. This being said, Covid masks are effective.
The distinction is all about the eyes for me: a Halloween mask’s very raison d’etre is to hide the wearer’s identity while disguising their line of sight. But a Covid mask does not obscure the top half of one’s face, so her eyes and gaze are unencumbered, clear, identifiable. A Halloween mask connotes scare-based mischief, whereas my Covid mask brings me comfort.
I think the answer must lie somewhere between The Great Gatsby, and To Kill a Mockingbird, and E.T. (Maybe with a dash of Rear Window.)
In Gatsby the painted, all-seeing eyes on the billboard are a constant, unblinking witness to the machinations of the morally bankrupt: those eyes are always indiscriminately watching.
The climactic scene in Mockingbird has Scout in an unwieldy ham costume with only a small slot for her to see through. She witnesses terrible things from inside the ham, with the camera shot trained on the eye-slot so we must watch Scout see something that changes her perspective.
And on Halloween in E.T., the titular alien only has two pinholes through which to see when Elliot tosses a sheet over him as a makeshift ghost costume. E.T. sees the suburbs from two poorly placed eyeholes that give him a chopped-up, incomplete picture of life on Earth (and his night ends about as poorly as possible).
I feel distrustful of full-face masks because I can’t tell what the wearer is looking at, what she is seeing. Likewise, I am fearful for the wearer because, according to the movies I keep re-watching, nothing good is witnessed from inside a mask.
So this Halloween I wish the best of luck and good, safe times upon all those who venture out.
I’ll be staying in.”
(Railey Jane Savage is author of A Century of Swindles, now available from Lyons Press)
Laura Likes: (Where my friend Laura recommends great stuff)
“Halloween in the U.S. tends to be all about the sweets, but I've always been a fan of a somewhat lesser-known tradition associated with All Souls' Day, November 2nd. You may know this day as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, or the Day of the Dead. (These few days at the end of October and the beginning of November are a three-fer: Halloween, All Saints Day, then All Souls' Day.)
At any rate, the tradition of giving out small, spiced cakes for All Souls' Day is fascinating and surprisingly complex, but for the most part I just remember my grandmother making them.
There are lots of recipes for soul-cakes available online. They're small, designed to fit in the palm of the hand like a coin, and if you're expecting something like a cupcake, you are doomed to disappointment...their texture is somewhere between a cookie and a scone. But if you like allspice, nutmeg, cloves and dried fruit, this may be up your alley.
Soul-cakes smell delightful while baking, and I use the time spent making them to think about the coming of winter, the turn of the seasons, and those who went before. (This is what I do late at night on Halloween after celebrating with novelty music and dressing up like something not very scary at all...baking, instead of watching horror films from behind my hands in front of my eyes, and thinking about the Harrowing of Hell.)
I'm probably the least stereotypically Goth-y Goth ever. Anyway, enjoy the soul-cakes.”
(You can find and follow Laura on Insta and Twitter: @prairielaura)
Targeted Upsell: What the Internet wants me to buy
While looking for fun halloween ideas, I was presented with the Ma-ka-rohn Halloween pack. This company makes...you guessed it, macarons! And good news: for a limited time, you can get their special pack of 12 macaron cookies themed for Halloween!
(Ooh la la!)
12 cookies, flavored like your favorite treats this time of year!
You’ll have flavors like pink starburst! Butterfinger! Sour apple!
(Nothing says “spooky” quite like a French cookie that’s notoriously hard to make!)
All for the low, low price of $25 (plus shipping)!
Because Halloween should be filled with fancy insta-worthy cookies that taste like candy you could buy yourself at literally any store right now!
Why am I seeing this?
I like candy, I like Halloween, I guess they put two and two together and came up with...this.
Did they sell me?
...I’m sorry, is Ma-ka-rohn trying to make Halloween fancy?
Halloween is my absolute favorite holiday. Sure, the candy’s great, but my favorite thing about it is that it doesn’t need to be elaborate: if wielded properly, one tube of red lipstick can turn you into a vampire.
So, I cannot in good conscience support a product that wants me to be chic on Halloween.
That is true horror.
(Emily Mason trick-or-treats in Chicago)
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