It only took a year to prepare my costume for this Halloween -- an 8-foot-tall inflatable Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from the movie "Ghostbusters." Even as a kid, I made my costumes, which included Darth Vader and C3PO from Star Wars (well before you could order them already "done for you"). I donned a Clark Kent at the moment he was changing to Superman in college -- pulling the dress shirt back to reveal the blue top with giant yellow 'S" underneath. But I didn't have any breakthrough costume... until this year.
My brother Darren Wachler warned me. He had been an evil clown with an inflatable suit in years past. He experienced the "curious crowd effect" -- people poking and pulling, which risked damaging the costume. He said, "Brian, you're going to need a handler. You've never done anything like this before. It's going to be insane with the crowds." I naively thought that being 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide as the adorable but possessed villain that Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), and Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) battled would merely be a crowd pleaser.
Darren dressed as a Ghostbuster who had this DNA mixed with Doc Brown from the movie "Back to the Future." His real job was to protect me inside the fabric bubble. I replaced the mouth with clear plastic so I could see, but I couldn't see my feet, which meant stepping off and on a curb would be a challenge. Darren would be my eyes and guide me. My twin daughters, age 9, offered to help out. I loved their Greek goddess and blue Monarch butterfly costumes. My wife Selina looked awesome as a 1960s Go-Go dancer. I knew that with the pounds of sugar to be gathered on this one night a year without parental pushback meant my daughters and wife would be MIA most of the night. Because of Stay Puft's size, I knew the street would be best as the sidewalk would be too narrow especially if there were adjacent thorn bushes. That meant going to one particular area in Santa Monica in California known for its famous haunted houses where the police block off the streets: 16th Street and Georgina Avenue. It is family Halloween to the max. Thousands upon thousands of families local and from afar journey to participate in the extravaganza. It's sensory overload. Because of the police presence and the barricaded streets, I would be safe there. Or so I thought.
No Stay Puft would be complete without the looped theme song from the movie which I had going on my smart phone. It was still light outside when I inflated Stay Puft in the alley and fired up the song.
Because I couldn't see the ground, I had to learn how to walk all over again, mainly by shuffling my feet. We all made our way towards the epicenter. While we were still in the alley, it started. Darren who I nicknamed "Venkman" said, "Cars are stopping to take pictures. Kids and parents are taking pictures too." Once we got to the side walk, it was a challenge to not rub against the shrubs. Venkman had tape just in case of a puncture. It was strange to walk in the bubble of the most famous marshmallow man in the world.
We all made our way to the first curb. Venkman told me to stop as more parents and kids wanted to snap photos. Venkman said, "It's starting... this driver in the car was taking video. We're going to need help." One of my daughters said she would help. At the curb, he guided my foot to the ledge which I could feel and I blindly stepped off and felt the secure street underneath. I successfully navigated my first curb, Yeah! We headed to a friend's house for a children's Halloween party. People again began to come up and take pictures. Venkman fended off one boy who began punching me. I didn't expect the aggressiveness and what was it about this inflatable figure that triggered it? After they got their pics, we were on the move again. Selina and the girls were already way ahead of us. Finally we got to our friend's house. After everyone came out to see us, I realized there wasn't a chance I'd fit in their home so I unzipped myself. I folded up the limp marshmallow man and we went inside for the festivities. I was already getting hot inside of big dude. It was like being in a sauna with all the heat from my body being retained. I think all arctic explorers might consider packing this 8-foot Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, because sleeping in him would likely keep frostbite away. After this cool down, I topped off my water bottle that I had clipped to my belt. It was dark now and that meant time to get the show on the road. Our girls were eager to fill up their bags with as much high fructose corn syrup as they could pack in them.
I went to the front lawn and stepped inside the suit. Venkman zipped me up and I flipped on the fan. It only took about three minutes for me to get full sized with the super charged internal fan. We all began walking, but soon kids and parents changed their trajectory to Venkman and me. I didn't want people to see me through the clear mouth, so I learned to grab the sides and lift Stay Puft up being sure the clear mouth window was above my hair. I could only hear the commotion around us. "Is that a robot?" one child asked. Venkman said, "No, there's a person inside." "I can't see him," the child responded. Venkman explained, "He's five feet tall and made of marshmallows." (Writer's note: I'm actually 6'2".) Some other kids began hugging Stay Puft. I could see the indentation from inside. Then some ladies hugged. I figured people would stop to have a look, but I didn't expect such a scene, especially with people being so physical, specifically the hugging. I noticed someone was pulling and punching my left side. I called out, "Venkman, crowd control! Left side!" He ran over, "Hey guys, someone's inside please don't do that. It will damage it for next year." Selina and the girls were tired of waiting for us as we were corralled, so they went ahead. Even though Venkman needed backup, nothing will stand between a child and pounds of free candy. We were still blocks from the mass of people in the blocked off area. We crept closer and Venkman yelled, "Wait, your left arm is caught on a thorn bush!" He untangled me. No evidence of puncture!
Finally after much stopping and starting, Venkman announced that we arrived at 16th Street and Georgina Avenue. I peered through the mouth so I could see the melee and was happy to see a police car and several officers on standby. We walked towards them and I heard, "Great costume!" That was probably the only compliment I've ever received from the Santa Monica Police. They weren't this friendly when I rolled a little at a stop sign last month. I said to the officers, "I'm glad to see you here!" We walked past the barricade and into the jungle. IT WAS OVERWHELMING.
It wasn't people -- it was masses of Halloween figures everywhere. A crowd circled Venkman and me. It was constant camera flashes going off which I could see through the fabric. I heard a father say to his child, "Get out of the way, he can't see you." The 11 o'clock news headline flashed in my mind, "Giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man Tramples Toddler on Halloween." I called out, "Venkman, am I clear to walk?" He said, "All clear Puffy." We continued to slowly move in the middle of the street. Some teenage girls politely asked, "Can we take a picture with you guys?" Venkman said, "Of course." I saw the silhouettes of them hugging me hard, very hard. Venkman told them, "Easy girls, not so hard. He's kinda sensitive." The barrage of camera flashes made me realize what it must be like for some celebrities on the red carpet at the Oscars.
Just as we began to walk again, I saw this arm come across my belly to stop me from going forward. A man sternly spoke, "Just hold on there. I want you to take a picture with my boy." The sheer rudeness surprised me. What happened to the nicety of just asking to take a photo? I guess the perception of losing the photo op tapped something primal in this dad. Someone began punching my back, "Venkman, backside! Crowd control!" He ran around, but they were already gone. People broke into dancing with Venkman and me to the theme song. We seemed to put people in a good mood. There were a lot of "High Fives" on the giant hands. I heard many curious people ask Venkman tons of questions. The most common ones were is there was a person inside or a robot of some kind? I saw a few relatives: a baby in a Stay Puft outfit and a guy in a normal size Stay Puft costume. Of course, we posed for a family pictures.
The hugging, pulling, punching, prodding, and flashes went on for over four hours. It was fun, but exhausting. I have a sense of what it's like to be the person inside Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. Halloween naturally gets folks amped up, but Stay Puft was the catalyst. Stay Puft seemed to draw out of each person who came up to us an emotion that was ready to bubble over. I interpreted the hugging as reflecting spontaneous affection and punching was latent anger that came out, for examples. I saw almost every type of human behavior exhibited that night. A psychologist in this costume next year might obtain enough data for several scientific journal articles.
As a busy eye surgeon with a young family I don't get to spend much time with my brother Darren. This night was a memorable and unique experience for both of us -- we constantly worked together for well over four hours. I didn't expect that night to be the source for much-needed brother-brother bonding. Our mother suddenly passed away about two month ago. A close death like that shakes up one's world and yet strangely brings family closer together. I can't remember when I last I spent so many hours with my brother Darren like we did on Halloween -- and having good ole' fun the whole time. Family was the most important aspect of life for our mom. I know she was watching Darren and me having a blast together.
When the night was over, I reunited with Selina and the girls. I really hadn't seen much of them all night except for their few "check ins" in between the haunted houses and the candy gatherings. What I really learned from that night was that spending time with one's sibling(s) is important (not necessarily on Halloween). We, you included, all are now part of what I call the "iGeneration" (iPhone, iPads, etc. ) that can distract us from what's truly important in life -- BEING with other people, especially family. So many of us are attached to smart devices. It's a common sighting to see families in a restaurant where one and all are on their smart phone, not interacting with anyone. I think, when our time is up, no one will say, "I wish I spent more time on the Internet." It will be for many, "I wish I spent more time with my family."
Dr. Venkman and I look forward to seeing you next year at 16th Street and Georgina Avenue in Santa Monica!