There’s nothing like a little brush with the forces of evil to cheer people up. Apparently we all need to let ourselves be terrified occasionally, if only to prove to ourselves that we are strong enough to handle it. That's why we embrace horror movies, ghost stories, Ouija boards, and Halloween.
In America, we spend 364 days a year in what strikes some of my European friends as forced good cheer; to go around gloomy or morose in “the greatest country on earth” is considered almost unpatriotic. Our churches don’t include the gory crucifixion scenes so common in Europe or the fanged demons bedecked with skull necklaces that are popular in Asia. We make an effort to shield kids from life’s harsher aspects. But on October 31, it’s not just acceptable but praiseworthy to scare the socks off them.
As kids, Rich and I loved the mild thrills of trick-or-treating in a familiar place that was suddenly a dark and mysterious underworld filled with little witches, vampires, and ghouls. When we married and moved to Ohio, Rich and I decided to get into the spirit by fashioning a ghost out of an old bedsheet and hanging it out the window.
“That is so lame,” sneered a six-year-old neighbor I’ll call Dwayne. Every year we ramped up the fear factor a little, and every year Dwayne scoffed. I realize how petty this sounds, but after a while it became a sort of vendetta. And then, the year Dwayne turned eleven, we hit on a foolproof plan.
That Halloween, I opened the door dressed in a headless costume, a candle in my skeletal hands. The entryway was filled with bats, snakes, dead leaves, cobwebs, spiders, and flickering candles. “This is so lame,” sneered Dwayne. “That’s Rich in the headless costume. Like we’re impressed.”
Saying nothing (after all, I was headless) I walked deeper into the room, pointing at the table where we’d placed a big cardboard box marked “Really Good Candy!” Dwayne swaggered up to the table, leaned forward and lifted the box. Inside, poking up through a gap in the table, was Rich’s (seemingly severed) head, face made up like a ghoul, mouth dripping what looked like blood. Dwayne screamed, the other kids screamed, and they all ran out of the house as fast as their legs would carry them.
Rich crawled out from under the table to give me a high five. But he was back on duty in minutes and wouldn’t leave his post for the rest of the evening. Because word spread like wildfire, and soon children were lined up on the front lawn waiting their turn. Each little group would creep in, nerves jumping. Someone would lift up the box, they’d see Rich the Ghoul – and everyone would run screaming out of the house. I don’t think we gave away a single candy bar all night.
Late in the evening, Dwayne returned, bringing his cousins. He strutted up to the table saying, “This is so lame. That’s Karen in the headless costume, and when you pick up the box, you’ll see Rich’s head. It’s no big deal – ”
And then Rich reached out from under the table and grabbed Dwayne’s leg.
The kid had to be scraped off the ceiling. And that was the last time he, or anyone else, ever referred to our Halloween celebrations as “lame.”
We never did anything nearly that hair-raising again. We didn’t have to. The neighborhood kids came back year after year, completely pre-terrified – and loving it. That was more than a decade ago, but I’m sure they are still talking about the head in the box – not only with each other but with their psychotherapists and post-traumatic stress support groups.
Rich and I haven’t decided whether we’re doing anything here in Seville this year; Halloween costumes and candy are starting to creep into the culture, but scaring the socks off little kids hasn’t caught on yet. However, Rich had this really great idea involving a coffin....
Is Halloween celebrated where you live? Have you seen any great costumes or decorations?
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. I make frequent trips to the USA, especially my native California, because America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don't want to lose my touch.
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San Anslemo, CA