I have always loved the holidays. All holidays. I’m a quarter Christmas elf on my mother’s side, and Thanksgiving at my house has topped out as high as 70 guests. The Easter Bunny always appears in spring, as do sparklers in July. If it were legal, I’d rent a woodchuck for Groundhog Day.
But Halloween has always been my favorite. What could be better than an entire holiday dedicated to terrifying children?
I vividly remember the thrill and terror as a kid of those special haunted neighborhood houses in my Bay Area suburbs every October. There was the Soderberg house, down our street and two blocks to the left. Every year they turned their lawn into a graveyard and dressed up in elaborate costumes to serve candy out of a pot frothing from dry ice.
That’s Halloween 101 these days, but it blew our minds in the early ’80s. I remember standing at their gate, staring at their door, just trying to work up the courage to step forward and ring the bell, as other kids whispered that the Soderbergs had been replaced by monsters or were even buried in the front yard.
Then there was the big white house in Burton Valley, a 10-minute drive but well worth the effort. On a bench next to the front door was a life-size scarecrow sitting limp. When kids reached up to knock, it leapt up and grabbed them, because it was actually the homeowner in disguise. That crazy guy spent the whole night sitting outside in the cold, waiting to scare children.
Classic. Possibly criminal, but still classic.
Once I became an adult, I did all the typical Halloween stuff of 20-somethings — I went to parties, came up with arcane pop-culture references for costumes and drank horrible themed cocktails. But what I really wanted to do was to frighten some kids. Christmas is about peace on Earth, Thanksgiving is about gratitude and family, but Halloween is about giving children nightmares. Not horrible nightmares, just make them earn that Mars Bar a little.
But for decades I was continually blocked from sowing the terror I so craved. After college I lived in a series of urban apartments, which are terrible places to field trick-or-treaters. Then I moved to Mexico City for seven years. While there, I learned about Day of the Dead, which is a deeply spiritual time for many people, when they remember the family and friends who have passed away and set out offerings for them. And while I loved pan de muerto and still lay out an ofrenda for my late grandparents every year, trick-or-treating was not popular there, and I don’t think anyone would have been thrilled if I had leapt out of an alleyway dressed as a vampire to terrify their children.
When I moved back to the U.S. with a kid of my own, I landed in a suburb of Baltimore with a front yard, a lawn and a stately maple out front. Finally, I thought, the opportunity to hear the sweet, sweet sounds of small children screaming on October 31st. Immediately I started planning how to drop a full-size shrieking ghoul from the tree so that it stopped just above kids’ heads.
But I wasn’t familiar with local trick-or-treat politics. You see, our street had been designated a low-candy zone by the locals and nobody bothered with it. Two streets over, people sat out all night on their stoops with bowls of Starburst and Milky Ways, laughing and passing out treats to dozens of princesses, superheroes and Harry Potters.
What a wasted opportunity. There were no hands reaching out from the grave, no howling ghosts in the trees or dry ice or lunging scarecrows. No screaming kids.
This year, of course, we have a pandemic to contend with. Children are more likely to stay home, and I’m not sure anyone has the stomach for more terror in their lives. To make matters worse, I’ve moved to a house in the mountains just outside Boulder, Colo. The closest thing I’ll have to a trick-or-treater will be the local black bear, who I doubt would appreciate being chased by an ax-wielding clown. I feel like my window for terrifying kindergartners is rapidly closing.
Every year in December, people decry the commercialization of Christmas, how the holiday has lost its meaning. Well, what about Halloween? It used to be a time when a dad could dress like the angel of death, set up Hollywood special effects in his front yard and make small children tremble on the sidewalk. Without tears and some light emotional scarring, Halloween is just another saccharine Hallmark holiday.
So, if you’re lucky enough to live on one of those high-volume, candy-rich streets in America and are feeling the weight of a difficult year, just not sure you want to put any effort into Halloween, think of me. Here, alone in the woods with no tiny people to terrorize, no use for my giant inflatable spider or my collection of ceramic skulls.
Even in politically polarized, economically depressed and uncertain times like these, we need to come together (in a socially distanced way) and remember we are one country, united in a love of giving out sweets and making children wet their Paw Patrol costumes. If not for yourselves, do it for me.
Erik Vance is a staff editor for NYTimes Parenting; part-time Christmas elf, assistant chocolatier to the Easter Bunny and aspiring undead ghoul.