October brings a couple of things my way with unwavering predictability: fingernail-chipping amounts of fall housecleaning, and at least one person asking why my family throws our annual Halloween party “The Eye Ball”, now in its ninth year, on Halloween night itself. The query for the latter usually goes something like “How come you gotta throw the party on Halloween night? It would be so much more convenient for me if you did it on the weekend prior.” It’s a question I’ve always found a little annoying, but rather than come up with yet another vague answer loosely rooted in truth, I thought I’d attempt to sort out my thoughts and commit them to the page on the subject of why I think Halloween parties need to be thrown exclusively on October 31st.
I learned the hard way at a young age that trick-or-treating is one of those things that needs a beginning, a middle, and a clearly-defined end. The beginning usually features cruising the homes of all the older folks in the neighborhood who are likely to turn off their porch lights right around the time the street lights come on, the middle is the sugar-fueled mayhem depicted in movies like E.T., and the end involves frantically racing to the few remaining houses that still have their lights on as you exhaustedly make your way home, usually with a sprained ankle. These final few houses can make or break a kid’s Halloween memories, and I’d like to share with you two polar-opposite examples that I’ve carried with me for over thirty years.
The first ended in a situation nothing short of entrapment. My best friend and I were closing out the night, knocking on every last door we could find, while our mothers followed behind at a respectable distance. In the final block before the street where we lived, there was only one house with its light still on, and we both knew we’d reached the end of the line. We rochambeau’d (rock-scissors-paper, for the uninitiated) for knocking rights, which he won. I can remember shuddering with anticipation; would the occupant of the house recognize that we were the last customers and reward us by upending the treat bowl into our pillowcases? It seemed likely. Actually, anything seemed more likely than the tongue-lashing we received when the “lady” of the house opened the door (and her mouth), and proceeded to accuse us of being Satan-worshipers, hell-bound, demon seed, and several other choice, dire insults of Biblical proportions. You’d better believe our moms caught up to us in record time. My mother and I were Unitarian, and threats of hell carried all the weight of tealeaf readings, but my friend and his mother were extremely religious (Jewish, actually) and weren’t standing for this preachy tirade. My friend’s mom exploded at the woman, even going so far as to demand that she “Look at these adorable children! LOOK AT THEMMMM!!” The details of our encounter with this God-fearing neighbor circulated all over the school, and were recalled in increasingly exaggerated detail for years to come. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that to this day the house bears a hobo code on the fence to warn trick-or-treaters of this Halloween equivalent of The Grinch, suckering children in with that porch light. What a way to end the night.
One might think that such an experience would turn a kid off to trick-or-treating, and maybe even Halloween in general. I’m sure my mom would have done anything to get out of traipsing through the neighborhood with me the following year, dodging religious zealots like so many rotten eggs. However, an invitation came our way from our new next-door neighbors that proved irresistible: “Stop by when you’re done trick-or-treating; we’re throwing a little party.” I never could have known at the time that this simple, impromptu gesture would forever change the way I had come to feel about Halloween and overall neighborliness.
When we got back from what felt like a somewhat truncated candy collection, we headed to the neighbor’s house before our own. As we came up the walk, we could hear the music pulsing from the garage, which was connected to the kitchen. What lay beyond that door looked, to my child’s eye, like a satellite location of Studio 54. In retrospect, it was probably nothing more than half-a-dozen party lights from Radio Shack, a fog machine, black lights, and some artfully hung sheets to conceal the underlying garage-ness of the scene, but I felt transported. The music was nothing I’d ever heard before in my PBS-centric childhood, but undoubtedly featured late disco, early new wave, and compulsory hits of the day like “Monster Mash” and “Time Warp”. Between being blinded by the strobe lights and deafened by the tunes, I felt a level of exhilaration and disorientation most kids aren’t exposed to until they’re at least 18. Was it just me, or were the wall-to-wall people in costumes talking and moving preternaturally fast? The hands on the clock certainly were, as hours passed in minutes and concern for my bedtime vanished like an exhalation of vapor from the fog machine. I lost track of my mom, and fell into a vaguely inappropriate, bellowed conversation with a total stranger at least three times my age, who was dressed as the Devil…perhaps that harpy neighbor from the year prior knew of what she spoke; I was hitting it off with the Prince of Darkness like it was the most natural thing in the world. I don’t remember how I wound up back at home in bed; I only know that I did because the party scene played out in my dreams, probably for hours after the overhead fluorescents had been turned on and two cars had resumed their rightful places in the middle of the “dance floor”. It’s no exaggeration to say this had been the best night of my nine-year-old life.
Every 365 days the opportunity to knock on our neighbors’ doors reaches a level of acceptability significantly higher than all other days of the year. It’s a curious thing, as these are people who are generally in our closest proximity for the greatest number of hours every year, yet so many of us don’t know the names of folks who live two or three houses beyond our own. On this one day a year when we take our cue from a glowing porch light to ring the doorbell, we must be equally ready for the reception awaiting us: it could be the source of nightmares or the stuff from which dreams are made. This will be the ninth year my family will echo an invitation put forth to me over three decades ago: “Stop by when you’re done trick-or-treating; we’re throwing a little party.” We wouldn’t have it any other way.