Cute Little Devils

When I was a child, kids went out “Trick or Treating” with other kids.  Adult escorts were only employed to take infants door-to-door so they could also participate. For most of the 20th Century, Halloween was a holiday dedicated to the empowerment of American children.  When I began suiting up for it in the 1950s, it was the one day of the year when kids got to be the scary and powerful beings for a few hours.  We even got paid for it in a currency we preferred – candy.

from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Sure, there were some clueless parents who tried to subvert the purpose of the holiday by dressing their girls as princesses instead of witches.  There were middle of the road costumes like “hobo” and super-heroes that only implied danger.  However, the most successful and popular efforts were monsters, aliens, or any kind of impossible or supernatural being.  It was a large honor to be considered one of the scariest by the other kids.

It made no difference when I was a child what the origins and history of Halloween had been.  I absorbed, accepted and immersed myself in what was presented to me at the time as normal.  Getting candy and possibly being considered exceptionally scary were successful incentives.  One of the most admirable qualities of children is their ability to adapt uncritically to the situations they find themselves in.  Our child-self is the wellspring of our creativity.  It all starts in play and imagination.  The opportunity to reinvent yourself in some form you couldn’t possibly inhabit normally (just for one night) was an ideal platform for our artistic impulses.

The characters we wanted to dress up like were ones we had seen on TV and in movies or magazines.  We boys obsessed over issues of Famous Monsters (of filmland) magazine.  Not only was Famous Monsters magazine full of photos of scary and gory stuff, it had ads and articles on professional make-up used in the movies and TV shows.  We could buy arcane and invaluable items like burnt cork, liquid latex, collodion and mortician’s wax.  There were plans and designs we could use to manufacture our own masks and prosthetics.  Today’s fantasy and horror make-up giants including Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and Tom Savini all began as readers and fans of Famous Monsters.

In those days you didn’t automatically get candy at the door just for showing up in costume.  You had to do something to earn it.  “Trick or Treat” really meant “Do a trick and you’ll get paid in treats.”  My siblings and I learned to read earlier than most.  In my family it was ordinary to be able to read the newspaper by age three.  We didn’t think anything of it, but by the time I was five I realized that adults were impressed by it.  That became our first trick.  I wore a black cape made from a dyed sheet, and white makeup/black mascara on my face.  I guess it was a sort of Goth drag, as would later become popular in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”.

At each home I gave a short speech about possessing occult powers that made me “wise beyond my ears”, and offered to read any item of text presented to me.  That produced a few polite claps and kudos for my cleverness, and candy, but I was just the warm-up act.  I then made extravagant “magickal” gestures and produced my three-year old brother who was dressed in similar fashion.  When he also was able to read anything from the newspaper to scientific textbooks, it got a big round of applause and we got a LOT more candy.

We got so much candy we had to make stops at home to empty our paper shopping bags.  There were some people who gave out apples, but their houses got less traffic as the news got out.  The adults knew what we were there for – MORE SUGAR!  After four hours of canvassing neighborhoods we might end up with two or three bags full apiece.  Of course we couldn’t begin to consume this mountain of milk chocolate.  It circulated through the neighborhoods and schools over the following weeks as trade goods to get baseball cards, dolls or whatever else we cared to barter for.  As our bellies grew and our teeth rotted, we dreamed of being big and scary, and awaited the next issue of Famous Monsters.

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20 Comments

Filed under bad movies, humor, photos, Television

20 responses to “Cute Little Devils

  1. Mike. You make me smile! Just loved this walk down Halloween memory lane.

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I’m going to write about the symbolism represented by some of the classic monster tales next. (owOOOOoooo!)

  3. The most irksome thing these days are the people who don’t celebrate Halloween b/c it has Pagan roots and and are down on Harry Potter. It’s a book, people. I personally think Halloween is great for 3 things A) it makes scary less scary. B) it lets the youngins have an imagination (God forbid) and C) candy, which in a weird sort of way fosters the idea of giving.. I miss trick-or treating. Seriously.
    Last year we didn’t get a single trick-or-treater b/c people are just too scared of people razor blading or LSDing the candy. Even when we lived in a decent neighborhood, trick or treaters were few.

    My friend, after she found fundamentalism won’t have a Xmas tree in her house b/c it was Pagan. Mind you, I see nothing wrong with being a Pagan or snatching nifty things off of them like putting a tree in your house.
    Jesus wept, but Jesus Himself would have to come up to me personally, tap me on the shoulder and say “Hello there, thou sinner. Cast aside thy Santa Clause you got when you were 4 years -old and those 9 billion Strawberry Shortcake ornaments you collect and hang on thy fake tree before I send you to the Lake of Fire where you shall burn for eternity. Merry Christmas!”

    • Despite my disdain for “woo-woo”, I believe there’s are forces at work in the world and in our lives we have little understanding of. But I don’t put much stock in the idea that current generations must pay for the sins of their ancestors. I’m trying to be more inclusive than my (undoubtedly) racist, sexist, xenophobic forebears.

  4. As you can imagine, Hallowe’en is my favorite time of year. Favorite. I’m a little ball of excitement for the entire month of October. Giddy. It’s ridiculous. This year, the husband and I will be going to the town Hallowe’en get-together as Sonny and Cher. I’m Sonny, and he’s Cher. It’s gonna be FABULOUS.

  5. Cat

    I love Halloween! I’m not sure what I’m going to be this year though. (Yes, I still dress up. I AM LEGALLY STILL A CHILD, DAMMIT!) Oh, and of course, I was never a princess for Halloween. I was a Dalmatian my first Halloween, and other costumes of yore included: cat (like 7 times), a witch, a pajama girl (I’m not sure what it is either), and Batgirl. Haha.

  6. You certainly have some agreeable opinions and views. Your blog provides a fresh look at the subject.

    • Thank you for dropping by to comment. I would do the same on your blog, but unfortunately I do not read Polish. (I also received some comments in Russian, but I can’t understand them. I hope the authors are not offended by my deleting them.)

  7. Mikey,
    Not having the Halloween tradition where I live, I was interested to learn about the “tricks” aspect of this, which was completely new to me.

    I had always assumed (based on nothing except for what I assumed the word meant and pure guessing) that the “trick” part was negative: that if there was no treat forthcoming then the child would play tricks on the householder.. some sort of prank or nasty surprise.

    Now I see I assumed completely wrong, the “trick” part is a positive thing.
    We have just celebrated the Dutch kind-of-equivalent of Halloween, it’s called Saint Maarten, and children go door to door with lanterns or candles inside glass jars. People who have sweets to give out mark their windows with a lantern or candle so the kids know which doors to knock on.

    Here in The Netherlands the children have to sing a selection of Saint Maarten songs to get their sweets and there are no fancy dress costumes at all.
    It’s a tradition (11th November) that is still strong in small towns and villages but which died out to a large extent in big cities, however in recent years it’s making a resurgence in many city neighbourhoods, including ours.

    Part of the reason I think it’s been revived in the cities is because the shops here have been trying to sell Halloween as something new and a lot of people object (including me)… nothing personal against North America but Halloween is your tradition and holiday and not ours and it’s only a gimmick for the Dutch retailers to try and squeeze out more venue.
    That’s also why I’ve been promoting Saint Maarten in our neighbourhood, …after all why celebrate someone else’s tradition when you have a similar one of your own some 10 days later? I feel it;s better to revive the old Dutch tradition rather than to go crazy with the scary Halloween stuff, and the kids still get sweets so win win.

    Our tradition is based on a real historical person, a solider who gave his cloak to a poor man freezing in the cold and shared his food.with the poor.
    The giving of the sweets represents the ‘sharing” aspect of the story.

    One aspect appears to be the same however: the sweets circulating as trade goods in the last week at school LOL because not every kid at school lives in a neighbourhood where the tradition is very active. I strongly suspect that some of these kids will be joining us in our neighbourhood next year!

    • It is true that during earlier periods of American history, the “trick” was a negative behavior. If the person who was being asked for charity (a treat) refused, the young were entitled to do things like throw eggs at their house or festoon their trees with toilet paper or cover their vehicles in tree sap or shaving soap. That was around the turn of the 20th century.

      If you watch the film “Meet Me in St. Louis” you can see how kids were expected to bombard stingy people at the door by hitting them in the face with little bags of flour during that time. But I grew up 50 years after, and to us it was all about creative costuming and being scary, plus the demand to perform as explained in this memoir.

      I love learning about the traditions in other countries! Thank you for giving me more familiarity with yours, KD. I’m still planning a “Mikey Goes Visible” World Tour once I retire in 2016. I’ll meet you at one continent or the other :)

  8. The meeting up sounds like a plan Mikey,
    Thinks have been rocky here of late on the health front, with a few setbacks in my recovery but I’m getting lots of extra help and hope that things will be looking up soonest.
    I enlisted some help in the neighbourhood to promote Saint Maarten this year and we had twice the turnout we expected, not everything was organised as well as it might have been, but that’s the necessary learning curve and we now have a ton of neighbourhood enthusiasm to build it up for next year.
    I’m invisible on the Net too, so we can get together and have a secret visible meeting… remember we have a guest room :)

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