Do they make Halloweens like they used to? Are the nights as cool, the moon as bright, the feeling of how great it is to be a kid still so true? Are the dangers as distinct? The rituals that secure? Long before we knew about the Celts and the harvest fires, we knew that Halloween was the greatest, trick-or-treating through alleys, around garages, down sidewalks looming with elms. Porches had wooden steps for grand entrances and quick, galloping exits. Home parties meant basements, not rec rooms: scary enough of themselves, needing only embellishment: spook houses built of boards and sheets, cold spaghetti worms, cobwebs, dangling fishnets, skooshy brains (raw hamburger in Jell-O) lighted by flashlights, with live ghosts jumping out. There was bobbing for apples, chinning oranges and balancing peanuts. Costumes were simple, the throw from a couch inspiring a pirate's swagger, sheets draped as ghosts or sheiks, old clothes donned in haggard profusion. And finally, the stories, told around a draped old lamp. We walked each other home, glad to be the last to make it back to the house. Do people walk home from parties now? Halloween is the last holiday that can be enjoyed without guilt, where we can act out our traumas instead of collecting them. It comes, after all, from the primeval past, the lighting of the fires of the Druid Festival. Consider the lowly pumpkin that now contains the sacred fire: If you've ever tried fresh pumpkin pie you know that the only use for pumpkins is making jack o'lanterns. But the fun is in the making, not in admiring others'; so the pumpkins should be carved during the party, not before. Just provide the materials and let imagination take hold. And, since this is one feast that's too much fun to waste on the young, a clever adult can think of many devious methods for joining in. Those who don't want to put forth much effort can satisfy their urges by following their trick-or-treaters around the neighborhood, keeping an eye out for their favorite types of treats. No one will notice. The second level of action is dressing up as an appropriate Halloween personage and helping distribute treats and/or displaying a hand at tricks. This also gives one the chance to display one's aptitude for childlike behavior to parents who are congratulating themselves on merely making the rounds. Phase-three parents can indulge all their fantasies and relieve some hostilities by planning a Halloween party for the children: as elaborate as needed as long as it is scary, weird, traumatizing, dark, damp, fun. The frustrated scientist can become one just for the night, setting up a laboratory full of dry ice, spooky noises, horrifying instruments, skeletons dangling behind backlighted sheets, dripping blood from armless hands, ghosts ready to appear on cue. Another phase-three indulgence is reading horror stories or, better yet, telling them as if they'd happened only yesterday. Any one will do, but don't forget to make yourself the hero or heroine. It's up to you to rescue the Canterbury Ghost or be the victim of bloody bones. All of the above, including bobbing for apples, work for people smaller than the declared heights at fantasy lands. It's the in-between set that's the real challenge. Too young for parties that are really interesting and too old for ones that are really fun, their world can be one large trauma; but there are ways to surmount their natural tendencies for disaster. Mixed company is mandatory; some guidelines are also. For example, there has to be something planned. Parties will not emerge full-blown at the wit preadolescent fantasy time. Food, of course, is even more important: The younger ones can be conned into eating something from their treat bags and given some beverage; the older group craves mounds of food and drink. Also needed is some quiet, dark space for special effects, which can be entered by at least one person at a time. For those reluctant to get into the spirit, one way is to give the kids the ingredients and let nature take its course. Masks can be done at the party; and soon the room will be filled with scar faces, ghouls, witches, vampires, skulls, etc. Let them make each other up and judge the effects. If you want to add dressing to the faces, provide the basic white and black, and anything else around the house; and let the guests do the work. This idea works especially well with adults who dread the phrase on the invitation: come in costume. Many a bedroom farce could be eliminated if that phrase were stricken from the English language. What it means is, "I have had a terrific idea for a costume which I will display at the party and hope you have fun, too." Which leads to the usual response of: "Are you sure other people will be there in costume?" Which in turn leads to simplistic solutions like taking along a raincoat and a notebook and claiming that you are dressed as Clark Kent. Here are some certified, surefire parties designed to warm the heart of any ghoul.
FOR THE YOUNGER SET: A trip around the neighborhood in costume for the real business of collecting the treats, preferably at twilight, should begin the evening. Then back to the house for exploring the treats and slaking thirst. Then on to the special space for a look at the exploits of the mad scientist and his menageries. Next, bobbing for apples to release tensed muscles and clean the teeth. Finally, the arrival of the witch to regale the troops with a scary story or two around the fireplace.
FOR THE MIDDLE GROUP: Trick-or-treating in whatever costume suits their personality, but preferably scary. A long trip around the neighborhood, gathering whatever falls their way, with a mandatory cutoff time and some limits as to distance. Back to the house for a party with enough people to appear full. Decorations are in order and lighting a necessity. A few games are needed to break the ice, including a possible trip through a spook house/room/tunnel. Complaints about these are ignored, within reason, but no apple- bobbing. These will never be forgotten. Otherwise pick some that are not too outrageous. Food and beverages are in abundance or ingredients left to make such snacks as popcorn, pretzels or peanut brittle. Materials are available to fix each other up in at least scary masks, and music is allowed to swell until someone feels compelled to act upon it. It's time to end the party. This allows everyone to go home with the feeling that they would have . . . if the party had not ended. They wouldn't have.
FOR THE OLDER-TO-ADULTS GROUP: All of the above, except trick-or-treating, including costumes if they are made at the party. Apple-bobbing is again fun, along with peanut races, popcorn feedings, etc. Ignore those who protest -- they would have come as reporters. Trade on their gratitude over the costumes and forge ahead. Halloween, what a glorious night. Too great to waste. The harvest is in. The Celts are running through the hills with the sacred fire. The Romans are gathering for the feast of martyrs. Let your genes have their way and treat yourself to a good one.