I was a child of the '70s. My Octobers were spent huddled around flashlights telling scary stories after dark, playing Ghost in the Graveyard and watching horror movie marathons on Friday and Saturday nights. We spent months planning the perfect costumes and mapping the annual trick-or-treat route based on the previous year's haul. In our minds, October was the best month to be a kid.
If I close my eyes, I can still remember the smell of the inside of a plastic mask, pulled from the colorful box that guaranteed it'd transform me into Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie, Wonder Woman or Frankenstein. I can almost hear the crinkle of the one-piece costume being pulled on over my t-shirt and jeans, then fastened at the back of my neck with scratchy ties.
When the grand night came, front doors were thrown open as kids of every age poured forth; an army of plastic-clad witches, vampires and TV personalities. Porch lights blinked on, signaling their occupants were open for candy business, screen door springs creaking and groaning with every open-close-open.
All around the block, herds of mystery revelers ran from house to house, kicking up the dead leaves that scratched along the sidewalks in their wake. After each door closed, we'd pause on the sidewalk to compare treats, trade licorice for jawbreakers and squeal our joy at the ultimate prize: a whole candy bar.
As we passed rival gangs of werewolves and astronauts, we'd compare notes on which houses had been so mean as to pass out apples and which porch held the spookiest jack-o-lantern. On this night, healthy snacks had no place in our plastic pumpkins or pillowcases, and scary marked the places we wanted to be.
As the night wore on and we began to tire out, our pace would slow. Sometimes we'd even spare a minute to cannonball into a pile of leaves in someone's front yard. No one thought about the work it'd take to rake them back up in the morning. After all, leaves were only raked into a pile to jump in, spread around and then pile back up to repeat the entire process.
As true darkness descended on our yearly rampage, the pools of safety from the streetlights determined our paths back home. We walked slowly through the bright circles, only to sprint through the murkiness to the next one. Everyone knew this was the night that ghosts were real and no one, no matter how brave they pretended to be, wanted to be swallowed by the shadows of the in-betweens.
When all the doors had been opened, all the treats handed out to choruses of masked children and the candles in pumpkins were sputtering low, we'd complete our zombie walks home to where our parents waited with a glass of milk and a warm bath to wash the October chill away.
Clothed in jammies and our plastic masks, we'd fall down in front of the TV, dump our night's treasure on the floor and divide it up by good, yucky and OK, stuffing as much as we could into our mouths during the process.
No one worried about silly things like tummy aches, rotten teeth or bedtimes. This was Halloween, and none of the usual rules applied. It was the one night a year that children were free to be nothing more than children and the world was only scary in our imaginations.
Sitting here this morning, listening to the dying leaves rustle in the breeze, I'm reminded of the mystery and magic that used to await us at the end of the month. If I step through my door onto the porch, I can already smell the chill on the air mingling with the scent of autumn foliage.
Somewhere along the journey from the '70s to now, the world took a giant step sideways. The cardboard boxes from Ayr-Way gave way to $100 masterpieces from catalogs as the freedom of a child's imagination was lost to bigger, better and something called the Mommy Wars. Candy must be thoroughly examined before being doled out a piece at a time and the things that lurk in the shadows are no longer the monsters from books, but the real terror of twisted people.
The fun and anticipation of the night has been lost to regimented parties, carefully scheduled activities or skipped altogether in the rush of retail stores to be the first to fill their aisles with Christmas merchandise. The joy that was the 31st exists now as nothing more than endless boards of instructions and recipes on Pinterest.
But sitting here in the dark, listening to the last of the crickets sing and the first of the leaves fall, it's easy to pretend, just for a moment, that it's the '70s again and the world is paved with October's promise of Halloween.