Whenever people say, “We just don’t get many kids for Halloween anymore,” it sounds as if they think no one’s making kids these days. How about that? We ran out of kids.
Trust me, some houses are getting lots of kids. We’ve never had anything but a constant parade at the door, starting with the twilight tots who have no idea what’s going on except that it involves candy, then the jubilant grade-schoolers having the best night ever and, finally, the slightly self-conscious middle-schoolers who close out the night.
There’s always a party down the block; a fire, a pot of chili, music, chairs brought out for the last night outside before the Wall of Winter goes up the next day. Around 1 in the morning I go back out to extinguish the pumpkins, and there’s always a great, sad vacancy to the moment.
The silence. The darkness. The sense that all that spooky orange nonsense that cluttered the stores for a month has been replaced by something vast and implacable — November: the year’s tomb.
It was just another night for the kids. Fun. Nothing scary really happened. Has anything really scary ever happened?
Well, yes. Twice for me.
The first: It’s the last year of high school. There is absolutely no way we’re dressing up as anything, because that’s for kids. In those days, Halloween was confined to the pee-wee demographic and had not been adopted as an excuse for adults to dress up as Sexy Russian Dossier or Comic-Book Movie Hero. Your dad did not dress up as Batman because your dad was, in a way, already Batman.
The choices for our evening entertainment were limited. The previous year, we’d all gone to see “Night of the Living Dead,” a cheap jolt of gore and nihilism. It was our introduction to the atrocities that would splash across screens for the next few decades. Apparently, we would now be required to see gibbering zombies fumble with intestines and regard it as entertainment.
Oh, adulthood was going to be awesome.
But that year, we just went to Embers.
Afterward in the parking lot, the Guy With the Car that had the Wicked Stereo said we should go for a drive, and being dateless guys who thought we might stumble across a candy-stripe nurse convention on the edge of town, this sounded promising.
We headed out of town, and in a few minutes we were on a dark road doing 60 and headed toward Canada. We drove for a long time, and in the back of my dutiful-son head, I was calculating the time it would be when we got back.
The driver was silent. Eventually he put an 8-track in the player. The Doors. I wasn’t a fan, but he was driving.
He punched the buttons until “Riders on the Storm” came on.
“Oh yeah, this is,” someone started.
“SSSSSHHHhhhhh,” he commanded. “Listen.”
“I know this song, dude. It’s deec, yeah, but why do we have to —”
“Sssssssshhhh. Be quiet.”
I saw his eyes in the rear view mirror, looking at me in the back seat. As the opening bars of the song unfurled, I realized he was going to kill us all. Worse, I would be late for curfew.
For a moment I was scared on Halloween.
When the song was over, he turned the car around, and we were not buried in shallow graves, which is always a bonus. He wasn’t homicidal. He just wanted us to appreciate this song. I just googled him; he’s a Realtor in Mexico now.
The other night of terror occurred when I was a young myopic hobo. That was my costume, actually: shabby coat, thick black glasses for some reason. I was 5 or 6. We kids could go out on our own door-to-door then because the modern fear of Ninja Pedophiles had not yet taken hold, and parents did not suspect their neighbors had been up all night secreting razor blades in tempting apples.
Something made me decide to go around the block to try my luck over there. When you’re a little kid, the other side of the block is a strange land — a mirror of your own but utterly different, unknown.
At some point, I realized that this side of the block had a peculiar aspect: There weren’t any kids here at all.
My side — the good side, the safe side, the home side — had lots of kids. The other side was empty, as if any kid who knocked on a door was whisked inside and dunked in a cauldron. Dark. Silent. Vacant.
I ran home, my hobo glasses fogged, because I was scared on Halloween.
It’s the thing that’s supposed to happen but never does. Everything is designed for Safe Scares and Fun! But if you’re lucky, you remember a Halloween that lifted the jack-o’-lantern’s lid and showed you something you didn’t want to see. An empty street. A dark, endless road.
Then you run to the light and the warm room, and everything’s OK. That’s the lesson of Halloween: Run back to the light and the warmth. And count all the sweet things.