Sorting by

Skip to main content

Lament for Halloween

By November 3, 2017 3 Comments

You’ve got to be my age or older, and you have to have been born in a small town to know what I’m talking about, but it went like this. Young, unmarried males would get decked out in dark clothes, wander around town in gangs, and do what they could to cause mischief. When I was a boy, we’d wake up on November 1 to find all sorts of junk out in the streets–even farm implements, far from home.

Once upon a time–if I remember the stories–outhouses would be tipped or else moved artfully, so that those who used them would find themselves in an unfriendly morass when they went out to attend what had to be attended to. The myth I remember best is of the cagey homeowner who got ahead of the game and moved his outhouse aside before the bedlam began, so the pranksters suddenly found themselves knee deep in horror.

Teachers often caught it, their houses egged or tomato-ed. I remember soaping windows, lots of them–houses and cars. Later, come daylight, toilet paper streamers waved lazily from front-yard trees.

The whole madness could get out of control–fires set hither and yon, and all kinds of junk hauled out into the streets, old wagons mysteriously up on unsuspecting roofs. When I was a kid, we’d “can cars,” a cute little prank created by garbage can covers tied to fishing line strung across town streets. Some driver would snag the line and haul banging covers around until he realized he was the one making all the infernal noise.

Roaming hoodlum gangs would do what they could to upset ordinary life on Halloween, some of it in fun, some not. It was all part of the evening, a ritual night of upside-down madness, good boys turned delinquent. On that night all bets were off, madness reigned.

There were trick-or-treaters, too, of course, but they were well off the streets by the time the bedlam began. And when they marched up to the door, they meant it–trick or treat.

Today, sweet costumed kids go out duly chaperoned at dusk and still say “trick or treat,” even though no one gets their windows soaped or garbage dumped. Maybe the last vestige of all true Halloween madness was smashed pumpkins; by midnight there were no more smiling candle-lit jack-o-lanterns on anyone’s front porch.

Halloween has been domesticated, which is nice, I’m sure, from the town fathers’ point of view, even though, years ago, the town fathers were the guys skulking around in black. Old Halloween, delightfully sinful, is gone. Today, the night belongs to store-bought costumes and a semi-load of miniature Snickers.

Here where I live, church groups run a sweet program that gathers kids in from any vestige of the annual deviltry and rewards their righteousness with candy. Pranks are gone. There’s no more playful delinquency.

I for one can’t help being a little wistful. Sorry. Halloween’s been sanitized.

Once upon a time October 31 was a naughty Fat Tuesday, a night of lawlessness, pranks, punishments and dirty tricks, a night when the law and the church–once true authority in small towns–went limp. With the dawn, once again, righteousness held sway. The place was cleaned up. Halloween once meant tipped outhouses, broken eggs and smashed tomatoes, maybe a few lumbering harvest implements dragged mysteriously onto Main Street. Today, the whole business belongs to Wal-Mart.

Pardon my Jeremiah: “Woe and woe and woe.”

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • mstair says:

    “Today, the whole business belongs to Wal-Mart.”

    … there it is … great punch-line worthy of the set-up …

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    My memory of soaping windows is so dim that I was beginning to think that it never happened. Good boys being bad boys. As you seem to be suggesting, maybe something has been lost in the sanctifying of Halloween. Maybe some honesty; maybe some maturity. I remember thinking during our night of roaming: who am I and where do these feelings coming from? Not bad questions to take with you to church the next week.

  • Michael Kugler says:

    This is the best essay on Halloween’s carnival past I’ve read in a while. Thank you.

Leave a Reply