A Caveman’s Halloween
Don’t ask me if I get excited for Halloween. I spent pretty much every Halloween from birth through age 16 hiding in a cave.
I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. What that means, aside from “I’m about to tell you about the only thing that really sucked about my childhood,” is that my family celebrated no holidays of any kind, save for Passover. (We called it “The Memorial,” in line with the Witnesses’ proclivity for scrubbing the piety off most everything. Door-to-door proselytizing is “service.” Excommunication is “disfellowshipping.” Going to church is “going to meetings,” and so on. About all I had in common with the other kids at my school was that I called myself a “Christian” — though the other Christian kids were allowed a Christmas.)
My family began to adopt holidays a little at a time after we left the Witnesses in the mid-1980s. The first one we picked up was Thanksgiving, because we’re a pretty tight-knit clan and because there isn’t a Carter alive who can say no to a ride on the gravy boat. Christmas soon followed, and we gleefully began a tradition of overdoing it; hell, my father builds an entire Bavarian village in miniature for the occasion. (And every year, when he’s not looking, my sister installs a graveyard on the edge of “town.”) As far as we were concerned, New Year’s Eve was part of Christmas, so that one came easy.
We picked up birthdays a little at a time. Sometimes we celebrate them and sometimes we don’t, but we always call each other when one of us has a birthday. Independence Day … well, we buy fireworks, but we used to sneak those back when we were Witnesses, too. (Explosions know no religion.) That leaves Easter, which signifies little more to me than those disgustingly irresistible Cadbury eggs, and Halloween.
I wish Halloween meant something to me. I have friends who live for this week of the year. They began planning their costumes months, even years ago and even now they’re festooning their front yards with real corpses. (A four-pack is $17.99 at Costco.) And I, well, I’ve got nothing — no corpses, no costume ideas. I actually came up with a perfect costume for a recent burlesque show (more on that later), but I’ve since shaved off the beard and trimmed the shaggy hair that complete the look. Almost as if I don’t want to do this.
My anti-Halloween conditioning runs deep. During our Witness years, our family basically hid from trick-or-treaters: We’d turn out all the lights and draw all the curtains, huddle together around the TV in a darkened room and wait them out. Some years we’d come outside on November 1 to find toilet paper in our trees and smashed eggs on our porch, but for the most part, our subterfuge worked. Our house became a black hole in the neighborhood, like the house at the end of “Poltergeist.” We’d gone into the light … which was the TV, remember? All the other lights in the house were turned off.
It was particularly difficult for me — knowing that all my friends were out there collecting bagfuls of adult-onset diabetes, and that my face would never know the touch of an unpainted Shatner mask. By the time we left the Witnesses, I had grown too old for trick-or-treating, and a vital part of the average childhood slipped forever from my reach. I’ve never blamed my parents for raising me as a Witness, and I never will; we were all in the same boat, affected by the same weather. But it would have been nice to have gone trick-or-treating. Just once.
That caveman mentality stuck. I’ve rarely dressed for Halloween, and when I do — usually to meet the bare requirements of a costume party — it’s something last-minute and cheap. (And rock-star related: I have been Jagger, I have been Cobain.) My sister Jahmai — who is nine years younger than me, and is as goth as a girl can be without actually being a Goth — got to go trick-or-treating with my parents’ blessing, and that makes me happy and not a little bit envious. I can go to Halloween parties and I can eat bite-sized Snickers, but I can’t feel it, and I don’t think I could make myself feel it now.
I’ll never discover the true meaning of Halloween. But I remember the one Halloween I came close. I was 16, I think — mere months away from our exit from the Witnesses. My parents and sister wanted to go to a movie on Halloween night, and somehow, I was able to beg off. (I think my folks knew that I needed a night to be left to my own device. Looking back, I can clearly recognize many of the times they cut me a significant amount of slack.) So they went out and left me at home in the dark house, ignoring knocks at the door, watching “Night of the Living Dead” on MTV.
Sometime around “They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” there was a pounding at the back door that scared me half out of my wits. I approached cautiously with a Louisville Slugger in hand — what, exactly, was I going to do with that thing? — peered through the curtains, and saw my friends Matt, David and his sister Bobbie. I stepped outside to talk with them (“What the hell were you gonna do with that plastic bat?” said David, laughing), and after a short back-and-forth, they convinced me to come outside with them and stalk the neighborhood.
“But I don’t have a costume,” I protested.
“Sure you do,” said Matt. “We’re dressed as the kids who are making so much trouble around the neighborhood.”
So we were, and so I did go out. We approached a couple of doors, but I hung back at the sidewalk while David, Matt and Bobbie collected the candy. (“Ninjas! We’re ninjas in street clothes!” I heard David say to one of my neighbors.) Later, we just hunkered down on a hilltop near the elementary school and watched groups of miniature ghouls and beasts pass excitedly from door to door.
I looked at my house, a bit of negative space between orange-colored candy castles. Most of the trick-or-treaters avoided it, and for the first time ever, I felt sad for my house. It deserved to be a part of the festivities.
“Hey, guys?” I asked. “Whattya say we go TP that house over there?”