To pass out candy on Halloween this year, I had to fill out a form required by my subdivision and turn it in by October 24. No more just flipping on the porch light and putting out a simple carved pumpkin or two. The organizational effort in the neighborhood included a notice that our homeowners’ association would plant ghost stakes near the mailboxes of participating homes on Halloween and hand out maps to parents and children.
Halloween in my grandchildren’s suburban Detroit neighborhood has become something of a Hollywood extravaganza with adults taking the lead. Elaborate dioramas complete with fog machines, 20-foot-tall monsters, life-size haunted pirate ships, giant spiders and animatronic grim reapers are common. Three-year-old Felix and I watched one afternoon as a neighbor directed a team of electricians illuminating the red orbs of dozens of skeletons emerging from the cemetery on her front lawn. Fortunately, Felix thought they were coming out of bathtubs, not graves.
What a stark contrast to Halloween night in Detroit in the 1950s, the one night when the decorations were primitive, parents were left home to distribute candy and children were free to roam in the dark.
Halloween back then meant hours of begging for treats in the company of your friends starting at dusk and often not ending until 10 p.m. Even though we were in early elementary school, we prowled the neighborhood on the northwest side from Grand River to Schoolcraft screaming “Trick or treat” and “Help the poor!”
All of us knew which houses were “haunted,” and not by creatures you could order online. We also knew the friendly homes – the milkman who gave out pints of orange juice to parched revelers or the banker’s wife who let you stick your hand in a big jar and come up with a handful of pennies.
The air was filled with what Truman Capote once called the “cider tart” odor of rotting fall vegetation and the acrid, yet sweet, smell of burning leaves. Back then, everyone raked their leaves to the curb and set them on fire. It was pollution, but it enhanced the night’s spooky atmosphere. There was no need for the fancy fog machines that are popular with Halloween diehards today. The aroma still conjures up memories of enchanted fall nights.
My sister and I often stood out from the crowd because we didn’t get our matching costumes from the dime store – our grandmother, an accomplished seamstress, made them. My mother insisted on costume uniformity, always dressing us alike at all times since we were “Polish twins,” born 12 months apart. Sometimes we were brides in dazzling white tulle or witches with pointy hats and wigs made of gray yarn. My mother, who could have been a Broadway designer, was the creative mind behind our costumes, including our 1959 showstoppers, when we were dressed as the Queen of Hearts.
Our sweet appearance belied our naughty tendencies. We hung with a wild bunch of six- to eight-year-olds who believed in the “trick” part of “trick or treat.” As a result, our crowd often had to make difficult choices on Halloween, without any parental input. If someone on Rutland Avenue, the ritzier part of the neighborhood, left a basket filled with candy on their front porch and a note “Help Yourself,” our motley crew would pause. No one was watching. Was it right to dump everything into your bag or pillowcase?
This often led to our first ethical debates, with one or more of us opting for the wrong choice. We weren’t angels, even though we went to Catholic school and were required to dress as our namesake saints during the Halloween party hosted by Sister Mary Praxedes, the school principal at St. Mary of Redford.
Still, we were grappling with what was right and wrong, along with how to navigate a tough city populated by tough kids – without the oversight of parents.
Of course, today’s kids and their parents and grandparents have different concerns. They have to worry about razors and rainbow-colored fentanyl in trick-or-treat bags.
I’ve become one of the over-protective adults. It’s why we took our three- and six-year-old grandkids in early October to the pricey Halloween Experience at Greenfield Village, Henry Ford’s recreation of a bucolic 19th century town in Dearborn.
We entered through a gated parking lot, where a security guard checked our names off his list. There was another ring of security to pass through before we could have dinner with the Pumpkin Fairy, the Mad Scientist and other characters, and ride a carousel that spun to the music of the Monster Mash and Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead. Afterward, we prowled the village streets lined with thousands of lit pumpkins under the light of a full moon. The kids never left our sight.
It was a magical start to the magical month of October, but I wondered when would they get to experience the liberating moment of a truly independent nighttime adventure, even if it was populated by vampires, ghosts and zombies.