Monday, November 2, 2009

Fear & Bloating On Hallowe’en


The bloating part goes without saying, and this photo captures exactly what I’m talking about:

(Update: for a brilliant narrative of Hallowe'en bloating, check out my brother's comment at the end of this blog.)
The fear part is a bit more complicated: I’m going to describe what is scary—not just fun-scary, but actually scary—about Hallowe’en. There are several categories: mythical fears, historical fears, real-time fears, and the dread of nascent fascism.

Mythical fears

The main mythical fear, of course, is the razor blade embedded in the apple. I was astonished to hear this one again this year (though the person who mentioned it may have been speaking ironically). Back in elementary school we got a stern warning about this from the teachers—practically a scolding. I don’t know what motivated the teachers: did they think this was a real threat, or were they just as titillated as we were, or were they just increasing our excitement about the holiday? Never mind that in the history of man there has never been a razor blade embedded in an apple.

The more modern fear is that kids will be abducted while trick-or-treating. I don’t remember there being any fear of this when I was a kid. As far back as I can remember, I trick-or-treated without parents. There was one kid on our block whose dad would accompany him, and we mocked him for it. But these days, every kid has at least one parent along. We parents travel alongside our kids in a big mob. Alexa gets a house or two away from Lindsay and it’s hard to keep them both in sight.
Historical fears

As a kid, I really did find Hallowe’en scary. Here are some highlights.

First, there was the costume accident. My dad was helping my brother Geoff with his robot costume, which had a mechanical arm with a bicycle brake caliper on the end, so Geoff could grab candy. My dad was using a Swiss army knife and the blade closed up on his finger, slicing it really badly. It bled like crazy. Of course my brothers exaggerated, telling me how if it weren’t for the fingernail (that went “all the way to the knuckle!”) , Dad’s finger would have been cut clean off. (It didn’t occur to me to ask about the bone in there.)

Then there was the drunken girl episode. I think I was still in elementary school. My brothers and I, out trick-or-treating, came upon a couple of teenage girls, one of whom was bawling. Geoff explained to me, in hushed tones, that she was drunk, and that was what happened when you got drunk. So for years I thought drunkenness always led to crying your eyes out, and since I wasn’t sure by what mechanism drinking alcohol led to drunkenness, I thought it might happen to me—maybe all the time—when I got older.

It wasn’t until fifth grade that I got really scared, though. This was the beginning of self-consciousness, when I didn’t want any undue attention drawn to me—and a good costume did just that. I was fine for years when I always went as a vampire (not Count Dracula, mind you, just some rank-and-file vampire). But in fifth grade I had to wear the costume my brother Geoff had made. It was an insect head, made from papier-mâché, with big bulging eyes. To make the eyes really cool, like the compound eyes of a real insect, Geoff had painstakingly glued split peas, round side out, over the entire surface of each eye. It took him forever. When it was done, he was too shy to wear it, so he gave it to me. I got to school, put it on, and was immediately fussed over by the teachers, which embarrassed me almost to death so I had to take off the costume. (Teacher approval equaled the enmity of your classmates.) My best friend asked if he could wear it and I gladly let him. He entered the school-wide costume contest and won first prize.

In seventh grade things got really bad. I went to the junior high school Hallowe’en dance, equipped with Geoff’s latest costume creation, an even cooler insect head with miniature marshmallows covering the compound eyes. Teachers and administrators were delighted, thus I was mortified, and stashed the costume in the school office. Once I hit the gym—that is, the dance floor—I realized I was a complete social outcast, and would have gladly shrunken myself to insect size to escape everybody. A girl I had a crush on had this sparkly stuff in her hair for some reason, and this scared me. Because of the crush, she’d scared me to begin with. Then my friend—my only friend at the school, whom I know from bike racing—danced with her, which just seemed unfair. As it dawned on him that I was an outcast, and it dawned on me that he was realizing this, I had to flee the gym and headed to the auditorium.

In the auditorium, all the other social outcasts were watching a really disturbing movie in which a guy was lighting himself on fire. That was scary enough, but then the nerds were all laughing, which was even scarier. I fled the auditorium; in the hallway outside I ran into a school administrator who asked why I wasn’t wearing my really great insect costume. I fled to the gym where, as far as I could tell, my peers actually knew how to dance, and enjoyed it. I fled back to the auditorium in time to see another on-screen suicide. Back and forth I went, like Mary, the girl in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie who spends her last living minutes running to and fro inside a burning hotel.

Though I was miserable at the dance, I was terribly afraid of the stigma of coming home early from it. So I toughed it out as long as I could and then headed home. (I didn’t learn until years later than it was common to be uncomfortable at a junior high school dance; that lots of kids hid their discomfort; that the movie was “Harold & Maude,” a comedy in which the hero only pretends to kill himself.) I didn’t even have time to mope around the house before my mom arrived and asked, brightly, “Well, how was it?” Something about her hopeful, enthusiastic attitude just put me over the edge. It crushed me that she had no idea I was such a pariah, that for all she knew I’d had a great time. I burst out crying, to her great astonishment.

Later that night, out trick-or-treating and barely able to see out of my cool insect mask, I was mugged by a bigger kid who stole all my candy. I went home and told my brothers, who enlisted their friend—who had a Jeep!—to go out looking for the perps, to beat them up and get my candy back. Of course I know there was no way we could find, much less identify, the evil muggers, but I played along, feeling like on this night I was leaving my silly childhood behind me.

Real-time fears

Now that I’m a grown-up, I don’t have to dress up or anything, and can take simple delight in my kids and their costumes. They’re too young to be self-conscious, so when they get scared it’s by one of the really great haunted houses a neighbor will assemble here and there. When they’re scared, it’s like scared-lite: even they know it’s all in fun:
But occasionally I see something that kind of creeps me out. For example, along the elementary school parade route was a very young girl who was dressed most disconcertingly: super-short shorts, fishnet stockings … kind of like a groupie. What kind of wacky parents does she have? Did they have fun pimping her out like that? Is she like a doll to them, something to dress up scandalously for their amusement? And above all, how square does it make me that I take issue with this?

Another fear: the jack-o-lantern. Not that it's possible to carve a pumpkin well enough to be literally scary; rather, Alexa asked me if I could put the candle in it for me. “It's all gross in there and I can't bring myself to do it,” she explained. I lifted the top: the horror! The inside walls of the pumpkin were richly carpeted with thick, gnarly mold. I swore I could feel it breathing spores on my as I dropped in and lit the candle.
Then, during the trick-or-treating, I had the willies, time and time again, seeing little Lindsay, her floor-length princess dress skimming the ground, running recklessly down dark staircases with a big bag of candy. It seemed only a matter of time before she would trip on the dress and fall flat on her face. With twenty adult witnesses, I’d be roundly disparaged for allowing this to happen.

Of course I have to worry, as a parent, about what this holiday teaches the kids. Like most American holidays, it seems to celebrate gluttony. Families are really generous in our area, sometimes giving kids three pieces of candy, or a full-size candy bar or an entire sleeve of Starbursts. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a neighbor said, “Here is an amuse-bouche, compliments of the chef, while you wait for your candy.” Eventually the bags became almost too heavy for my kids to carry. Here, Lindsay attempts a hands-free setup, perhaps to have immediate access to her candy, like a horse’s neck-mounted feed bag:
The specter of fascism

As a modern parent, I am constantly beating back the growth of children’s rights. There’s a strong strain of permissive parenting here in the Prius belt, and though I’m not a retrograde child spanker or anything, I bristle at the tendency of so many parents to soften every directive by adding “okay?” at the end. “Tommy, remember that we use words, not fists, and certainly not baseball bats, so I’d like you to please stop beating your friend now, okay?” Though I’m not actually all that strict—perhaps not as strict as I’d like to be—I do take great pleasure in the fact that I get to create reality for my kids. Perhaps partly because we don’t have cable TV, they really have no idea how a typical family runs. So my wife and I get to make up whatever rules we want.

For example, every time one of the girls gets a treat—candy, dessert, a slice of pizza, anything—they automatically offer it up for the “parental tariff.” The sanctity of their very own treat is a totally foreign concept to them. And on Hallowe’en the tariff is worthy of a progressive European nation: they get two hours to enjoy their candy, and whatever is left goes to Dad. So for two hours today they chattered away merrily amidst their piles, occasionally bringing me candy, usually something relatively unappetizing like a black-licorice flavored Dot. At one point Alexa said, “Here, Daddy—this one isn’t a loss leader, it’s actually good: a chocolate-covered caramel thing!” (It was good, if a bit smashed and sweaty.) And then, when their time was up, I went and just took all their candy, and they didn’t protest one bit.

At first I was pleased that my autocratic policies were so easily accepted, but then I’ll confess I had a somewhat chilling realization: these kids may be just a bit too docile. It’s hard to imagine them sticking up for the little guy against a giant corporation someday. Is it possible my parenting is crushing out their spirits, shrinking their horizons, setting them up to be trodden on as adults? But when I consider Alexa’s well-reasoned and persuasive argument for being allowed to read her fourth Harry Potter book, or Lindsay’s impassioned entreaties for five more minutes of play time before bed, I think everything is going to be just fine.


  1. Dana, that really brought back the memories. I remember when Max worked so hard, beating the streets at a full run for a good hour after the rest of us quit, only to get mugged by older boys and lose it all. I really felt sorry for the guy. Stupid kids, if I could find them now I'd give them a jolly-good, old fashioned spanking.

    Although we don't really get into the Trick or Treating, our kids do generally end up going to a "harvest party" of one sort or another every year. (One year we took them to a "Reformation Party," where we "celebrated" Martin Luther's loosing of the Bible to the common man. That was *not* a hit—that would make a school dance seem like a really great time.)

    We have tried various techniques for candy control, even frisking them at the front door and confiscating all their candy. One year we bought it off them. We always take a tax. They're really generous, actually, especially with the Tootsie Rolls. They're still disgusting, though not as bad as when I was a kid—probably because back then I was always on the verge of throwing up from too much candy, and that heavy, disgusting, almost carob-like flavor of the Tootsie Roll could tip me over the edge. I just have to laugh when each kid discovers just how gross they are. "Hey, I know, I'll give it to Papa! He won't notice, he loves everything!" How has that company managed to stay in business all these decades?

    This year we just let it go, I guess we were too tired to care. They ate and ate candy, littering the house with wrappers. Before tucking in, Peter (four) complained that he was hungry, then a moment later that his belly hurt. My wise wife sent him to bed with a bucket.

    Half an hour later, we got the call. It was Kathleen, "Peter's throwing up!" Jean hauled up there and he was still wretching when she got to him. But, somehow the little bugger got every last drop in the bucket, then started filling another. It was a brown soup, clearly nothing but candy and water and smelled a lot like chocolate. As soon as he had purged his system of the evil poisons, he was feeling chipper and ready to tuck back in.

    You've just got to love this holiday!

  2. Dana--I forgot the funniest part of Peter's throwing-up saga! After he was, uh, finished, I asked him how many pieces of candy he had had. He held up one hand, proudly, and announced, "Five." Yeah, right.