If there’s one thing that epitomizes the celebration of Halloween, it’s dressing up in a scary costume. The practice of trick-or-treating has a long history as a means of imitating evil spirits and placating the restless dead. Sometimes, however, traditions become unmoored from their origins and people forget their own customs; sometimes, even the evil spirits forget.
Don writes to tell me the bizarre story of one Halloween night in 1993 when something strange – stranger than usual for Halloween – came to the door. Don and his wife Kathy were home with their son Brian handing out candy to the children who came to the door.
“Brian was just thirteen then,” Don tells me, “but he thought he was too old to go trick-or-treating.” Don and Kathy took turns answering the doorbell. It was getting late and Don was about to turn out the porch light and call it a night.
“There hadn’t been a trick-or-treater for a good half hour,” Don recalls, “but near nine-thirty, there goes the bell again.”
It was Kathy’s turn to answer the door and she rose from the family room sofa. Don heard his wife grab the bowl of candy from the chair in the hallway and open the door. It was quiet for a moment and then Don heard his wife’s low fearful gasp.
“I thought it must be a doozie of a costume to give her a scare,” Don tells me.
Don set down the magazine he was reading and leaned back on the sofa to listen better. He could hear his wife nervously clearing her throat and the night sounds coming through the open door – crickets and far away traffic – but the trick-or-treater remained quiet.
Kathy broke the silence and said, “That’s quite a costume you’ve got there, young man…or young woman?” She nervously tapped the candy bowl with her fingers for a moment, seemingly waiting for a reply.
Suddenly Don heard a strangely amplified voice scream “Trick-or-treat!” It sounded like a recording played on poor quality speakers, and Don jumped up off the sofa when he heard the crash of the candy bowl as it hit the floor and shattered.
Don called to his wife and she reassured him that everything was fine, she had just dropped the bowl. Don walked to the door and he could see his wife’s back but not the trick-or-treater standing outside. As Kathy bent down to pick up the shards of porcelain, Don got his first glimpse of the costumed figure.
“Well, it was real odd,” Don remembers. “It was a mixed-up sort of costume, I guess.”
A small figure, not five feet tall, stood in a ragged brown robe, a dirty plastic bag held out in one mittened hand and a small orange box with a jack-o’-lantern face in the other. On its head, it wore a yellow-stained pillowcase with two frayed holes for eyes.
When it saw Don approach, it held up the orange box and punched a button. “Trick-or treat!” the box screeched.
Don stopped and stared for a moment, not sure if what he was seeing was a threat to his family or just a harmless kid. “I mean, not every kid gets a new costume and you make due with what you got sometimes,” Don tells me. “But this kid gave off a really weird feeling.”
Don continued to the door and got down on his knees to help his wife gather up the candy. He glanced up at the trick-or-treater. The porch light was behind and above the figure, so when Don was standing, he couldn’t see much of the face. But now, as he knelt on the floor, he could see into the ragged eye holes.
“There were the eyes and they were black, like completely black, no irises or pupils,” Don recalls. “And the skin around the eyes, I’m pretty sure it was covered in black fur, real fur.”
Don recoiled in surprise and put his hand on Kathy’s arm. She looked at Don and then slowly rose with a fistful of candy in her hand. “Trick-or-treat!” the plastic toy screamed again.
The costumed figure cocked its head slightly and Don could hear a low gurgle. Kathy held the candy in an out-stretched arm. The figure held out the plastic bag in a mirror image of Kathy.
The two stood frozen facing each other, Kathy waiting for figure to close the gap between them and the figure apparently mimicking her posture. At last Kathy stepped forward and quickly dropped the candy into the bag.
As she stepped back, the figure stepped forward, and Don, still on his knees, could see that the feet under the cloak were shoeless, but covered with the same black fur. “And they had claws, big claws,” Don tells me.
Kathy nodded at the plastic bag but the figure continued to stare at her. Suddenly Brian walked up behind his parents and said, “What’s going on? Somebody break the…”
Brian stopped when he saw the trick-or-treater at the door. The figure looked at Brian, studying him, and then grunted sharply. Rising to his feet, Don could see the black eyes widen in reaction to his son and Don began to feel very afraid.
“Well, I guess my wife has things more together than I do most of the time,” Don says. “She knew just what to do.”
Kathy took another step backwards and slowly closed the door on the strange little figure. The trick-or-treater simply stood there with the plastic bag still extended, still staring at Brian.
“Damn it if he didn’t stay there for another fifteen minutes,” Don remembers. “Every so often we’d hear that gizmo go off.”
Finally, it walked away and Don and Brian peeked through the curtains as it did. “It walked funny, kinda exaggerated,” Don recalls, “like it didn’t know how to do it right, but it was trying to imitate a person walking.”
Sharing their thoughts afterwards, Don and his family agreed that the last trick-or-treater to visit their house that Halloween night was not human. “Maybe it was a really, really good costume,” Don tells me, “but you can’t fake the feeling we all got that whatever was under that pillowcase was a monster.”
Halloween costumes represent a kind of meeting of the dead and the living, the human and the monstrous, a halfway point where recognition is exchanged. Could it be that the other side – the monstrous side – has changed the terms of the agreement and more visitors like the one that came to Don’s house are already on their way?
Or have the ghosts and goblins that come out to play on Halloween night forgotten their role in the show and are they now merely imitating what they see around them? Maybe the ancient practice of dressing-up as evil in order to conquer it has now been obscured, becoming merely the performance of a performance.
“I think my wife said it best after I kept pestering her,” Don tells me. “She said, when a monster comes to the door, you give him some damn candy and then send him home.”