This time of year, when the ghosts and goblins are about, I think of how Halloween has changed from when I was young. I think that the generation that grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s experienced the best of this cultural phenomenon. It was still an age of innocence in America, where free range kids were the norm rather than a controversial parents’ movement, and that reality manifested itself on Halloween like no other night of the year.
Unlike these days, when adults have largely converted Halloween to a night of structured activities, or when kids are rarely allowed to trick or treat after dark without adult chaperones, Halloween in our day was a night when kids were let loose on the neighborhood. Regardless of the weather, it was always a blast.
Growing up in what was then the outskirts of suburbia, just north of the Minnesota River in Bloomington, we had only one rule in our house on Halloween— you couldn’t go out trick or treating until after dark, a remarkable contrast with Halloween in today’s world, when many parents require youngsters to be home before it gets dark. Where’s the thrill in that?
Our parents, meanwhile, remained at home to serve up treats to the legions of neighborhood kids who kept them attending to the front door almost constantly for three or four hours. That left us on our own as we ventured far afield, roaming the surrounding suburban grid in search of our Halloween plunder.
That suburban grid of the 1960s was the ideal environment for Halloween. The houses were laid out efficiently, which meant you could cover a lot of doors in an evening. While, these days, kids go trick or treating with their little plastic pumpkin-shaped buckets, such things would have never held our Halloween loot. We carried pillowcases and by the end of some evenings we could barely lift them we had so much candy. My stockpile typically kept me bloated with candy right through Christmas.
While suburbia was efficient, it wasn’t like trick or treating among apartments, townhouses, or other urban settings. While the houses had their porch lights glowing, the spaces between the houses were pitch dark, leaving plenty of opportunity for either us, or our imaginations, to run wild with Halloween fervor.
Actually, for me and my friends, Halloween wasn’t just one night. We considered the entire month of October to be part of the Halloween experience. In those days, daylight savings time ended early in the month, which meant that it was always dark by the time we had finished supper. For me and my friends, that left us a few hours to play outside in the dark and we did our best to scare ourselves silly. We’d imagine every kind of scary thing out there in the dark. From kidnappers to zombies, we imagined it all. We imagined the bare and twisted branches of the big bur oak trees in the yard as the gnarled fingers of witches. When the wind blew at night, we always insisted there was something moaning not too far off in the distance. When the unraked leaves blew across the yard, we heard the footsteps of approaching monsters. I still remember shivering with the delight of it all.
Regularly, our October antics included a bit of mischief, even though it seems awfully tame by today’s standards. When we were younger, our nighttime trouble-making was typically directed at the family who lived just up the block. I’m not really sure why the neighbors always looked down on the Carters, although I suspect it was that given their heritage and background— Scotch-Irish— we thought of them as hillbillies somehow misplaced in the land of fastidious Germans and Scandinavians.
Fair or not, we were happy to play along with the local sentiment by ringing their doorbell after dark and running away. We had a hideout on the opposite side of the street where we would dash and then peek out as the mother or the daughter would come to door, then step out momentarily to look around before going back inside.
Then we’d spend the rest of the evening running from imaginary cop cars, who we naturally assumed had set up a dragnet in the neighborhood in hopes of tracking down ten-year-old doorbell ringers.
As we got older, our October forays would include more of the usual Halloween trickery, although by then we had other targets than the long-maligned Carters. We would often gather at an underground lair we maintained, where we hatched our various plans. We had, at one point, expanded a hole that someone had dug in the woods in a vacant lot. We then covered it with plywood sheets, then tossed a light covering of dirt and leaves over the top to keep it hidden. On one end we had an entrance through which we could wriggle inside, where we kept a handful of candles, sitting in little dug-out alcoves in the walls, for light.
The ceiling wasn’t very high, so we had to lie down inside, usually on a bed of freshly-fallen leaves we had moved inside. From there, in our underground bunker, we would map out the evening’s activities, which would depend mostly on the types of supplies we had managed to sneak out of our various houses. Toilet paper, eggs, firecrackers… our mischief was all pretty cliché, but at least it kept us busy. Our parents, of course, never knew a thing, and rarely even inquired about our nighttime adventures.
It was a different era, one where kids enjoyed a level of freedom (and occasional danger) that seems almost unimaginable these days.
Sadly, in many places, unaccompanied nighttime trick or treating, that was such an iconic part of the life experience of the baby boom generation, is almost entirely a memory.
Kids are mostly gone from the old neighborhood and Halloween has become a night of indoor parties rather than a night of kids roaming free. Perhaps it’s a good thing that kids these days have no idea what they’re missing.