MANY PEOPLE, I realize, are depressed or disgusted by Halloween and by the whiney little wretches who yammer at their door and then dive with both greasy hands into the popcorn bowl.
But those who allow the tacky reality of Halloween to intrude on their spirits have only themselves to blame. They need to concentrate on making Halloween what it should be - a night of sheer terror for all children.
Fright is truly splendid for the very young, and they don't get much of it these days. What they get instead is a mind-numbing diet of televised yucks and violence that saps the imagination and cheapens the soul.
Pry beneath that veneer of gong show sophistication with a good scare and you can liberate the same snakepit of tribal anxieties that once were the plaything of the Brothers Grimm.
Children, of course, love you to do this, as the unending popularity of horror movies testifies.But the made-in-Japan explicitness of a foam rubber Godzilla never really gets the juices flowing. Neither does getting beaten up at school. The real Halloween process requires a trick or treat of the mind.
I learned the fine art of true Halloween terror from my parents when, goaded by an obnoxious neighbor child's assertion that "there's nothing scary about Halloween," they decided to throw a party. The boy's name was Alec.
I was eight years old at the time and we were living in Fairfax County. My parents had always had a fondness for masquerade parties. I remember my father stepping out once, when I was about five, in some Omar Khayyam Arab costume he had picked up in the Middle East, complete with artificial beard. I told him he looked just like Jesus.
But there was nothing Christlike in the party preparations that Halloween three years later. My mother conjured up a witch outfit out of a black skirt and conical paper hat, then distressed me by blacking out several teeth with construction paper.
My father, who detested the boy named Alec, silently made himself up into a blood-chilling pirate, complete with earring and eyepatch and went around sharpening his Naval Academy sword.
The house was entirely dark when the children began to arrive. They would act like your basic giggling children until they got to the front stoop. Then my father would jerk open the door with the sword in his hand, grab them by the shirtfront and hurl them bodily onto the front stairs. To wait. In the dark. He never said a word.
When Alec swaggered up to the door, my father jerked him inside by the neck, pushed the blade of the sowrd against his throat and - leaning down inches form his face - hissed slowly: "One word out of you, you filthy little bilge rat and I'll cut your liver out and make you eat it."
Then he threw Alec on the stairs where the rest of us were huddled, scarcely daring to breathe.
My sister and I knew some friends of our parents were coming to help with the party, but they had come in the door to the basement and God only knew what they were doing down there. From time to time, as we waited, we heard long, blood-curdling screams, occasional sobs and whimpers and a lot of weeping. We didn't like it at all.
Then, after what seemed like hours squeezed up into tiny balls of fright in the dark, this snaggle-toothed witch emerged from the basement stairs carrying a single candle.
"Welcom then, my precious ones," she cackled with a voice like chalk on slate. "Who will be the first."
My sister and I, as it turned out, were the last, due to some demented parental notion of party manners. This meant we had to sit there in the dark, our imaginations galloping, listening to the screams, until my mother had led everyone else, one at a time, downstairs to what once had been our good old familiar basement.
By the time my turn came (no one else was left), I didn't know what was down there and I had no desire to find out. I was too scared to move. My mother eventually dropped the witch voice and reminded me that, after all, I was her own flesh and blood. That somehow made it worse. Finally I agreed to go, but only after she had taken the black paper off her teeth.
There were no lights on in the basement either. Total silence.Then, as we rounded the corner into the washroom, came the sound of moaning. Seated atop a stool, weaving in the candlelight, sat a man with his hands clutched to his face. Through his fingers poured what looked like blood. It dripped on the basement floor.
"MY EYES!" he cried. "What have they done to my eyes?"
"Someone tore out his eyes," explained my mother, matter of factly. "I wonder where they can be?
She began searching around on the floor, bending low in the candlelight, then led me into a tiny concrete room. A long, terrible secream sounded in the hall outside.
"Not here," she said, ignoring a corpse on the bed with a knife jutting from its back.
"Not here." From the hallway a sound of weeping.
We crept on through another small doorway into the back of the hall. My mother raised her candle and there in the flickering light hung a gorestained sheet. Above its edge, suspended by long hair from a hook in the ceiling, hung the head of a woman. Just the head.
Down the hall we wandered until my mother stopped before an old peeling thermos jug I knew from a hundred picnics.
"What have we here?" she asked. "Put your hand in and see."
I reached down and in the icy liquid within felt the sickening clamminess of something clotted, round and spongy: the blind man's eyes.
Then, right at my ear, came the loudest scream of all, as if the soul had been torn out of something just inches away. I turned and glimpsed in the candlelight the running figure of a woman, red hair madness, face as pale as death. She disappeared in the dakness. A dooor slammed shut.
And another door opened. Lights.
In the basement playroom, barely containing their manic laughter and fright-turned-relief-that-it's-over stood the rest of the neighborhood kids.
"Jeez," said young neighbor Alec as he shakily reached for a doughnut and cider. "Did you see that head?"
The party was so perfect my parents never gave another. They knew it couldn't meassure up. It was such a success two of the acting principals are still known familiarly in our family, thirty years later, as "the corpse" and "the bodiless head." The blind man and the screamer now live in Mexico, but we get Christmas cards from them.
As for the kids. I doubt if any of us has really been frightened of anything since. And that, of course, is the real value of Halloween: discovering that the blind man's eyes that scare you today turn out tomorrow to be peeled grapes.
For many years after college, the night hours and political campaign coverage of a reporter's calling kept me away from home October 31. But a few years ago, after I'd moved to Capitol Hill, I found myself passively handing out candy to a new generation of children who appeared largely bored and ungrateful toward the whole process.
Convinced that every child's Halloween should be more like the one I remember best, I lugged a stereo speaker but the basement door under the front steps where the trick or treaters would have to stand to ring the bell.
Then I put out all the lights, lit a pumpkin and cued up a Virgil Fox, organ rendering of Bach's Toccata in D Minor - the music usually heard when the mummy comes out of the crypt.
Things improved right away.
The startled seven-year old on the front stoop grabbed the porch railing and looked quickly around, anxiety showing through his Dart Drug Evel Knievel costume.
"What's that?" he asked. Treble tweedles and more music from the crypt.
The lady who was with me merely chatted cheerfully with him, inviting him into the darkened house, pretending that she heard nothing. Then I took a wooden mallet and made bumping noises under the front stoop - noises the kid had to walk across to get back out. The music played on and as he warily left, I grabbed at his ankle. He cleared three steps and hit the sidewalk in one leap. We never saw him again.
The next year, moving up from our minimal efforts of the year before, I fashioned a set of vampire fangs out of a couple of milk shake straws and slipped them over my canine teeth. Through the open windows of the darkened house sounded a record called "Sounds of the Humpback Whale" - a series of otherwordly groans and whistles recorded deep beneath the sea.
At the first ring of the doorbell, the door would swing open slowly by unseen means to reveal me standing, holding a candle, shrouded in a black leather trenchcoat. I made it a point to stare at the oldest child in the group, without expression for a long count of about twenty. Then I would slowly draw back my lips to reveal the fangs. Those who stuck around for more would see me slowly turn and then a pair of narrow French doors opened at the end of a long, high-ceilinged hallway. A woman dressed in a long black skirt, long hair flowing, would emerge carrying a single candle and a silver bowl and move very slowly toward the doorway with measured tread.
The key, of course, is time. It's a long hallway and the longer a kid has to face the unknown, watch me with the fangs and wonder about the lady coming toward him, the more he begins to wonder why he's there. Or what's in the bowl.
"I ain't eating anything from THIS house!" was a frequent whispered comment.
Then the lady would stop several steps from the doorway. To get the candy, the kid had to come inside, venturing further into the unknown. You could actually see the mental wheels turning as each child tried to figure if he wanted anything that much.
One shaky four-year-old in a skeleton costume had just decided he did and was moving forward when a large furry animal suddenly shot between his legs from the street and into the house. we really hadn't trained the cat to do that: it was a spur-of-the-moment decision on her part. But it livened things up.
Several kids rang the doorbell again later, demanding a second show. They wanted the cat included.
Last year the Redskins ruined Halloween by playing a night game. Priorities being what they are, trick or treat suffered. We kept the house dark thought, and those who wanted candy were directed by a dwarf-like voice from the mail slot to reach through said mail slot for their treat. After some whispered discussion outside, a tentative hand would usually snake through. When the arm was all the way in I'd grab it and yell "NOW! GET THE KNIFE!!"
Sounds of barking dogs and the feel of teeth around the arm were also proven effective.
Even when a key pass play interrupted the drama, the mail slot provided a lesson in moderation: big kids couldn't get there hand out if the hand was too full.
This year there have already been a few inquiries from the neighborhood kids about what they are liable to encounter at our house. But they don't get much of an answer. I always tell them we plan to be away. We're lending the house to another couple, I say. And the man doesn't have any eyes.