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.