Trick or treat smell my feet give me something good to eat. This was the chant that many kids used to say on Halloween when I was a child. Not me, mind you. I was raised better. But some kids did it; and many did it at the neighbors’ doors while trick-or-treating. Life was simpler in those days—more innocent. There was no fear of razor blades or drugs in the candy; kids could go around the neighborhood without parents who stayed home to pass out candy to the other kids. Kidnapping was something that happened in the big cities and in the movies. Murder was a concept with which no kid had experience, and only heard about on TV. Life was safer. But something happened somewhere along the way that has forever changed Halloween.
At school we had door decoration contests to see which class could come up with the scariest door. Construction paper spiders perched on purple-yarn spider webs taped to walls. Laminated butcher-paper ghosts haunted the windows and 15 versions of neon crayon Witch Hazels were taped around the room. And then there was the candy. Our moms would send us to school with a bag of candy which the teacher would distribute as the classes trick-or-treated in the halls. This was how we celebrated Halloween whether it fell on a school day, or it was the Friday before the weekend celebration.
At home, mom festooned the house with cardboard skeletons and witches and ghosts in the windows. At the dinner table, we had a set of pilgrim salt and pepper shakers that resided there from mid-October through Thanksgiving. We gathered pine cones which would be placed around the den and kitchen to bring fall into the home. Some of them we glued paper tails, wings and heads on and turned into turkeys. Mom would help us plan our costumes and it was not the store bought plastic mask most years. She would sew or glue or pin or whatever was needed to create the creature, spaceman, soldier, hobo, witch, mummy or whatever we wanted to be.
We would gather around the table when it was time to carve the jack-o-lantern. We would visit a pumpkin lot a week before just to find the perfect shape and sized gourd for our front porch. Dad would get the knife and let us carve an eye here and the nose there, and take turns on the grin. Getting the teeth right took an amount of skill. Of course, before the carving, we had to scoop. I was no real fan of that part. After the carving, mom would insert and light the candle and we would position the jack-o-lantern on the porch to let kids know candy was available.
Then, at dusk, as the sun set low and the shadows grew long, we would strike out with our plastic pumpkins eager to garner the treats of candy, caramel popcorn balls, and candied apples. Usually, we would all four stick together, but as we grew older, we began to go with friends. One year, when we were living in Virginia, it was not yet dark, but the sun was down. We had already been around the block once and we were doing the next block. I approached a house with a group of costumed kids standing around the driveway, each holding either a plastic pumpkin like mine or a paper bag. I was about to ask why they were standing there when a loud scream disturbed the night. It came from within the house. Time seemed to slow as we turned to look into the opened front door of the house, bathed in shadows. Suddenly, several children burst forth at a full run yelling as their candy flew behind them.
The kids that had been standing with me turned and quickly followed the screamers down the street, but my curiosity got the better of me. I, along with a few other like-minded superheroes and ghosts, made our way up the walk. The screech of a cat and the howling of a dog welcomed us as we approached the house. Chains could be heard clanking from within followed by low moans. Just as we stepped across the threshold into the blackness, a loud scream assaulted our ears. The superman behind me decided discretion was the better part of valor and left. The other kids and I continued into the dark. We came to a cloth barrier, cut into strips and hung from the ceiling. Inside the room, menacing decorations were lit only by candles and a black light. A long table was covered in bowls of candy, tempting us to come closer. The sounds we had heard outside were louder, coming from the speakers hidden behind the plants. My heart was thumping in my chest as I reached out and picked up a piece of candy. Nothing happened. I breathed a sigh of relief as I looked over the table at all the rest of the candy. Should I? Surely with so much candy and no one around to see, they would not notice one more piece. The ghost next to me shared my thoughts and reached out to snag a second snack. As he grasped the prize, a hand shot out from the center of the table and grabbed his arm. He screamed a blood-curdling scream and dropped his candy and bolted from the house with me close on his heels. I did, however, manage to keep my candy with me as I ran.
By the time I reached the street, I was laughing. Obviously the homeowner had thought of kids wanting more than their fair share and figured out a sure fire way to keep them honest. This house made me want to have a haunted house at our home and the next year, mom and dad hung black cloths and made a maze out of our garage complete with scary sounds.
It was while we were in Virginia that the first cases of tampering caused parents to have to check the kid’s candy for razor blades and needles. Soon, hospitals began to offer free x-rays of candy to ensure nothing was amiss. Gone were the popcorn balls and candied apples. The only candy we could keep was the prepackaged sweets. Which, to be perfectly honest, was fine with me. I like Hershey’s bars and Reeses cups better than candied apples anyway.
By the time my kids were in school, things had gotten bad. Parents no longer wanted Halloween celebrated in schools, so instead of witches and ghosts, the school had a fall festival. Hay bales and cornucopias replaced spiders and mummies. And the crime rate had forced parents to accompany kids all night while trick or treating. It is sad to think of the changes.
When I was a kid, the streets were full of costumed youngsters criss-crossing the street in search of sweets. Today, our streets are empty as kids are chauffeured to organized candy-giving events and parties. No one knows their neighbors and no one trusts them either. Too many sex-offenders, perverts and criminals live among us to trust the family living next door. Our kids are missing out on what used to be my favorite holiday. The season will never hold for them what it meant to me. Halloween just isn’t what it used to be. But at least I remember what it was, and I can look back with fondness as I relive those carefree nights picking the sugar babies and now-and-laters from the candy corn and laffy taffy.