Monday, October 30, 2006

The really scary part

Halloween has evolved since I was a kid. We used to dress up at school, to show off to the other kids. In the evening, we'd go around with our parents behind us, dressed up as witches and warriors, princesses, dinosaurs, and ninjas. We'd parade around to the neighbors' houses gleefully participating in a peculiar sort of sanctioned extortion. By the time I was a kid, pranks had mainly fallen out of fashion and many parents quietly omitted to tell us what the "trick" part meant in "trick or treat".

The decline had, in some people's opinions, already begun. The holiday had been well-safetified by the time I got there, with pre-wrapped candy only, porch light on, known houses, parental accompaniment, and flashlights were all drummed into us by concerned parents and teachers. Mass-produced costumes had appeared by then, too. Even as a kid, I recalled being put off by the printed foam and plastic masks of licensed characters. They hung stiffly and made a poor excuse for a superhero or cartoon character.

Still, a trip up and down my suburban street this month looks nothing like the Halloweens of my youth. Perhaps one yard in three is festooned with orange lights and sports large lawn decorations. The part that irks me most about them is that they are not at all unique or individual. House after house has essentially the same things: inflatable ghosts and pumpkins, unconvincing fake spider webs, plastic skeletons. They have all come from a handful of stores, mass produced, and they're all cutesy rather than scary.

I have nothing against getting into the holiday, or even decorating yards. Some of the coolest homes we visited as kids were the ones that went all out with scary decorations. A couple of years ago, some teens a couple of houses over got together and built an eight-foot high monster with blue lights for the eyes. It wore an expansive black plastic cloak over a scrap lumber and chicken wire frame and they rigged it to wave its arms when an operator behind the scenes tugged the other end of a fishing line. The improvised teenaged engineering meant that the monster's entire form shuddered, giving it if anything an even creepier appearance after dark. To top it all off, they put the candy dish inside a homemade "jaw" that opened on another string.

You just can't buy that sort of stuff. Unlike plastic tombstones, the thing really was scary, at least in the dark. Some of the littler kids wouldn't even go up the driveway at that house. One went away bawling as her mom tried to contain laughter. It also involved some actual creativity an ingenuity. Purchased light-up plastic things only involve -- according to market surveys -- an average of $51 per household, per year. (More for the houses that decorate.)

I don't have figures for this one, but I'd venture to guess that fewer kids and parents than ever are making their own costumes these days.

Where does this leave us? Another mass-produced, over-commercialized holiday, rapidly being stripped of its original intent, and coming soon to a neighborhood near you. What can we do? Buy the requisite candy, but carve our own pumpkins and use our imaginations instead of plastic to decorate. Spend less money, and have more fun. Isn't that the whole point, anyway?


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