Halloween was not really a major holiday during my childhood. We colored pictures of jack-o-lanterns at school or made them from orange construction paper. And we probably ate home-baked cookies our room mothers had decorated in Halloween colors.
Nowadays, however, Halloween rivals Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter in celebration, decoration, and commercialization. Store managers begin the spooky season right after the big back-to-school push. From August on, shelves are full of eerie merchandise: skeletons, witches, spiders, and bats. Positioned beside ghosts and goblins are monsters and ghouls, a little grislier each year. Home improvement stores sell fake coffins and inflatable Caspers for lawn and porch display.
My first-grade Halloween costume came from old clothes I found in my mother’s closet. Our class led the Halloween parade through the hallways and classrooms of Concord School. We walked up and down the aisles of the second grade room, and they followed us as we all proceeded to the third grade room. It was a mighty long line of tiny whatevers finally snaking its way past the high school students upstairs.
Mother or an older sibling occasionally created costumes: a pumpkin from a lampshade and orange crepe paper, an Indian maiden dress from a burlap bag, a Daniel Boone costume for my brother. Later my sisters really plunged into costume design, dressing their children as angels and pirates, E.T. and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, princesses and ballerinas, a flower in a pot and a crayon, plus that trio from Gotham City: Batman, Robin, and Batbaby in her stroller.
Following the Graham consolidation, annual Saturday night Halloween carnivals replaced in-school celebrations. The fish pond was always a favorite, and Mother baked many a cake for the cakewalks. There might also have been a tub of water so that kids could bob for apples. Costumed children ran from game to game, refreshments were sold downstairs in the cafeteria, and lots of farmer fathers observed it all from the bleachers.
Trick-or-treating was not a tradition for us girls until later on when we went to Westville or Rosewood where relatives lived. A lone visitor once showed up at the farm on River Road. My totally-unprepared mother could find only a slightly wrinkled apple for the poor girl.
According to Jane Sidders, former colleague and longtime Urbana resident, trick-or-treating in town during the 50’s and 60’s was a neighborhood kind of activity. The trickers and treaters all knew each other; and kids, often unaccompanied by parents, went from nearby house to nearby house collecting homemade cookies or popcorn balls and maybe a coin or two.
After my move to Urbana in the 1970’s, I eventually stopped turning on the porchlight because too many of my visitors were unfamiliar high school kids toting pillowcases for their haul of candy. I preferred visiting my sister to watch her children participate in Beggars Night; afterwards, they sorted and re-sorted their sweet “loot.”
It took much less to scare the bejeebers out of kids back in the day. During one Halloween carnival several moms had cleared out a storage closet in the gym, herded kids into the pitch black space, and narrated frightening stories complete with peeled grapes we thought were eyeballs and cold spaghetti we believed to be brains or entrails.
Current scary experiences, however, are simply a modern continuation of the original haunted house. Jane once took her preteen children to the old ice plant in Urbana. The “decorations” were so effective that she had to hustle the petrified kids out of the place almost as soon as they entered.
There is the trend to haunt almost any location: schoolhouses, hotels, trails, orchards, caves, and mazes become places where people willingly allow themselves to be terrorized and terrified. I have even read about scare-a-toriums and scream parks around Ohio.
Probably the most basic symbol of Halloween is the pumpkin. My sister once organized a complete pumpkin-to-jack-o-lantern transformation at the kitchen table for her small children. Unfortunately, the slimy texture of the goop they removed overwhelmed one son, who promptly produced his own project-ending goop. In our current century, paint and decals often replace the potentially-dangerous carving of a jack-o-lantern expression.
Something so entertaining and traditional also serves as a barometer measuring society’s progress. Even as we reminisce about construction-paper pumpkins and costume parades, it seems somehow surprising that so many adults costume themselves for rounds of parties. Some parents assuage their safety concerns by utilizing face paint or make-up in place of masks while buying their children gory or suggestive costumes. Nutritional worries include candy containing peanut products and excess sugar, while fears of razorblades in candy and shady people in questionable houses have led businesses, churches, and public departments to provide alternate celebrations. And ever more frequently the word Fall replaces Halloween in names and titles.
Several Octobers ago I happened to drive through Plain City in the midst of their trick-or-treat event. My observations that early evening offered a glance back at a slice of Americana that is slowly disappearing. The air was clear, and the trees still held their colorful leaves. Parents stood on sidewalks as little ones dressed as cats and clowns and superheroes bravely knocked on the doors of friendly neighbors who had decorated their porches with cornstalks and tiny pumpkins. It was all sweet and simple and innocent – the kind of Halloween I like to remember.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.