© 2012 B. L. Bierley
Growing up in Small Town, Alabama, there were many holidays that didn’t hold the same significance for me and my friends as they might have for others. Holidays that larger cities celebrated in major ways, like President’s Day for example, didn’t have the same effect in my neck of the woods. I didn’t miss the parades and the whoopla so much out in my rural existence.
I appreciated the day off of school, of course, but the real need for a President’s Day didn’t touch my understanding. Why did the President need a day? Wasn’t he the President every day? By my logic, they should have called it, “Dead Presidents’ Day!” That would have been much more to the point. But anyhow, that isn’t what this is about.
My favorite holiday as a child was not the usual favorite of most children. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that holiday too. More family members came to visit and they brought us presents! And we got to give them things to make them smile, too! And there was always a church celebration that made going to church more fun. Back then schools still had nativity plays, too. I played Mary in the show my junior year of high school! But my absolute favorite holiday of all was Halloween!
Now, you might think this was because of the candy. But there you would be wrong. I didn’t go trick-or-treating much as a kid. In fact, I can count on two fingers the number of times I trick-or-treated as a young person. I lived in a rural farming community. To go trick-or-treating meant riding in the car to the nearest houses and getting a handful of tootsie rolls or a popcorn ball made by a friend’s mother. Sometimes if Halloween fell on a weekend, we might get to go to Granny’s neighborhood.
My Granny lived in a neighborhood in town that was approximately one circular block that was located directly behind the local Dairy Queen. At least once that I remember we got to go up and walk her block and ring actual doorbells to beg for candy. Woo Hoo! It wasn’t any big deal to us. You can’t miss what you never had, really. What my cousins and I looked forward to was much more fun than schlepping to seven or eight houses for a handful of cheap, old-person candy—those orange Circus Peanuts or candied Peanut Butter Wafers were the staple for these generous, albeit thrifty individuals.
My cousins and I attended a poor county school from first grade all the way to twelfth (okay, I was the lone exception: my rebel parents traveled now and then, so I spent a brief part of third grade in Pensacola, Florida, and an entire fifth grade exodus in a place called Escanaba which, for a small, southern girl with a friendly drawl, was more like a trip to Mars than a one-year stay in Michigan). My hometown school was a unified K-12 institution, separated into elementary and high school portions. In those days, my school threw an annual fundraiser for meeting various needs that the budget couldn’t supply. It all culminated in the Halloween Carnival. It started with a contest to raise money, where every penny spent counted as a vote.
During its heyday, this contest was the most exciting thing going in our school. The fundraiser consisted of a contest with the elementary students’ electing girls to be their class representatives as Harvest Queen Candidates, sort of like a mini-homecoming queen. The girl who raised the most money for herself and her class was the winner.
For this contest, Mothers would come out every day (sometimes between every class change) and sell goodies to anyone with a quarter to pay. Giant dill pickles, candies that were currently popular (Tootsie Roll Pops and Charms suckers with or without the gum were a contraband favorite), king-sized (crunch, peanut, and caramel), and Pixie Stix were always sure sellers. Some years, if a relative of a particular family got elected to run, crab apples (regular and pickled) were on the menu. And some of the mothers would also have canned drinks (sold under the table if the principal was watching). It was high times, let me tell you! The winner was announced at our annual Halloween Carnival.
Great Family Fun!
Our annual Halloween Carnival was a concerted effort by all the parents and families who lived in the community. For the second half of the fundraiser, tickets were sold to be used at various games and activities during the evening. Each grade was assigned to an area of the gymnasium and could charge anywhere from one to four tickets for patrons to participate in activities they offered. I can’t remember which class presided over which activities, but there were always some fun things to do.
We had a cake walk, a challenge: the mummy wrap (basically trying to see who could cover their friend completely from head to foot in toilet paper before the song, “Monster Mash” ended), a duck pond (this I recall was generally run by the Kindergarten class and assuredly the easiest game to win). Some of the games were a little more about skills. The ring toss, balloon darts, the basketball throw, and even the football toss offered some prizes to the most successful persons who played. The football toss was the second most popular attraction at the carnival. Contestants (usually guys with a girlfriend) tried to throw a football through a swinging tire. This was always very funny since we didn’t have any official football team back when I attended the school.
Other offerings and refreshments were available and meant to promote spending and bring in needed money for things for our school and students. More than anything though, the most exciting part of Halloween was the Haunted House attraction!
My school’s Haunted House was the most anticipated part of the entire carnival, and clearly the event that took in the most money for the entire event. Folks who weren’t even associated with the school would turn up to the carnival just to go through the Haunted House, and it was a bargain at just four tickets. And since each ticket cost a quarter, you were assured a pretty good scare for just a buck!
The Haunted House was run by parents collectively known as the Booster Club. They were parents who had children playing any of our offered sports: basketball and baseball for the boys and volleyball or softball for the girls. Cheerleading, of which I was a member, was considered separate from the athletic programs back then. But cheerleaders and parents still made up a sizable portion of the athletic boosters.
My folks took their Halloween haunting very seriously back in the day. Mama and Aunt Nana and the other booster wives took pains every year to figure out new ways to fool the unwary and scare the pee out of their kids. The entire boys’ locker room (which ran the length of the entire gymnasium down the right side of the building) was blocked off for a week prior in preparation for this event! And let me tell you, no one who went through that maze of horror ever came out on the other side without at least having been a little affected.
The special effects born there at that event were pretty impressive. In truth some of their scare tactics might even have an effect on the jaded denizens of today’s youth, too! They were a handy lot, crafting make-shift props that looked so believable they could have been in a mid-level budget horror film and had credibility! I should say we because my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and I were all an integral part of the “scream team” for over fifteen years while we attended school there. In fact, some of the props and spookiness remained with the successive haunt teams long after we’d all graduated.
Many elements were built specifically for that haunted house. There were fake walls where hands might come through to grasp at you. These created a winding hallway that led into the “laboratory” where a mad scientist tried to get body parts for his collection. We would have organs on display in jars to gross out the unknowing victims of our sinister house of horrors. Before you panic and think we were all a bunch of serial killers in training, remember this was a bunch of no-nonsense farmers with beef cows and pigs that were regularly prepared humanely for consumption. Usually we merely had to suggest that the items were real (by the way they weren’t) in order to get kids to believe it as they walked through.
A fake table with a bowl of what looked like moving worms (colored pasta) that would erupt as a hand came through the mass as soon as someone looked closely. As people went onward there were plenty of other attractions guaranteed to get into the head of anyone unprepared. There was a rack with real rope and a real wench. There was a trick guillotine with a “blade” that dropped in such a way that the captured prisoner’s neck was not affected. It was a neat trick for them to catch a customer and subject them to the guillotine treatment while their terrified friends looked on! This “torture chamber” was often the most dreaded portion of the entire attraction.
We even had the use of a real coffin for our vampire. The cemetery’s headstones sat above pallets of actual turned earth that appeared to look like a freshly dug grave. The headstones were made of wood, painted grey and white to look like weathered marble, and carved with real names of local “ghosts” from the area—local legends who still haunted the bogs and bridges. Day-Glo paint was carefully applied to the carved names so that it glowed in the black light. The cemetery was always the final leg of the haunted house, usually eerily still and quiet. One year someone was actually lying on the floor for hours just to reach up through the mulch and potting soil and scare people as they ran for the exit.
Our best Dracula was usually hiding somewhere besides the obvious coffin, which was on the floor beside a piece of plywood painted to look like a six-foot open grave! He would be behind a piece of black wall fabric or concealed behind the coffin waiting until the group was oblivious before he’d make his move. Good times!
All Tricks and No Treats!
One year my uncle worked out in advance for me to be a “victim” on random trips through the haunted house. He was playing the role of the escaped mental patient, and I was his unwary victim. I was often allowed to go through the haunted house just so I could provide a Jamie Lee Curtis-like scream. I was the queen of the blood-curdling scream in my hometown, y’all. My naturally soprano voice was shrill and piercing when I opened my lungs, very believable in terror mode. Anyway, when I came through Uncle Maverick was waiting behind a set of “iron bars” with a strobe light blinking in the darkened “prison section” (which on an ordinary day was the largest of the bathroom stalls).
As soon as he spotted me, Uncle Maverick lurched from behind the bars that couldn’t hold him and, with our bodies in profile, lifted me up by my hair and dragged me back into his cell. He didn’t actually use my hair to lift me. I was small enough that he could put an unseen hand beneath my arm while I placed my foot onto the front of his thigh near his hip for leverage. Uncle Maverick was very strong, and I was a cheerleader so it was just like I was climbing up to an L-stand, just backwards. This was how the actual lift worked.
My uninformed friends only saw a “lunatic” gripping my loose hair and quickly pulling me back into the large bathroom stall as if intending to do unknown horrors to my person. Added to my scream and outstretched hands trying to beg assistance, we made more than one person pee a little that year! It was weeks before my best friend forgave me for that little prank.
That year was one of the best ever for the haunted house! But my prank wasn’t even the most terrifying part. That was also the year the head cheerleader’s father was included in the fun! Reverend Dad (as we’ll call him here) was also the preacher for the local Methodist Church, at that time serving a large portion of the population. He was a tall, soft-spoken Southern gentleman with a firm, but friendly mien about him that could become very frightening during the fire and brimstone portion of the sermon. In truth no one ever suspected him of being the mastermind behind the Haunted House’s most impressive antics that year!
To exhibit his unique brand of scary Reverend Dad was given the “torture” room! That was the name given to the large open shower stall that connected with both the front and rear locker areas. The bathroom stalls where Uncle Maverick’s and my prank took place lined the wall adjacent to the forward entrance of the showers. Anything that happened within that space with its hard porcelain and tile surfaces meant the noise and the screams would be amplified.
Reverend Dad, unbeknownst to the general population—including his own family, had removed the chain from his chainsaw and brought along an ample supply of fuel. He was positioned near the rear corner of the showers so that people intending to hurry through the room couldn’t readily see him. He waited until they were near the door, facing outward the way that would take them through the cemetery and onward to freedom at last. Then he yanked the cord and started the chainsaw motor!
As the people ran from the scenes of torture, or from the mad scientist and witch who sometimes followed them through from the “laboratory” near the entrance without them knowing, Reverend Dad emerged from his hiding spot wearing a ski mask covered in skin-colored fabric like Ed Gein from Texas Chainsaw Massacre carrying what appeared and sounded like an actual chainsaw, and chased terrified people out into the cemetery portion. Throughout the night he moved to different locations within the highly decorated locker rooms so as to keep the people guessing, especially since many people went through again with different groups of friends.
Off the record I will say that during his tenure in the haunted house, Reverend Dad found out just exactly how many of his parishioners would call upon the Lord in their hour of need. He seemed pleased with the numbers.
Horror Films Ain’t What They Used to Be!
I’ve had a good run with this holiday, from the time I went to college and dressed up with my friends for a yearly Halloween Party to my days of entering contests with my carefully planned costumes (The last year I came in second to Sonny and Cher in a bar contest. I was a very convincing Marilyn Monroe from the Seven Year Itch, even had a fellow helping me re-enact the grate scene where the memorable dress flew up). But after my second child was born, I took a backseat to their costumes and their trick-or-treating.
My kids had great costumes and got to trick-or-treat every year in well-lit neighborhoods with sidewalks. Until they were old enough to hold their own haul, I pulled a wagon around so they could put their pumpkin buckets in it until it was needed for the doorbell. The last three years, Cap has taken along a backpack to get the overflow so we wouldn’t have to stop until the last kid was too-tired. Even Velcro gets to trick-or-treat because many of our neighbors have dog biscuits in a separate bowl for the furry kids!
Now that DaVelma is getting to the point where she doesn’t want to trick-or-treat anymore, we now allow her to have friends over to watch old horror films. With parents’ permission, she and a group of friends gathered at our house and watched the original movies: Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. The night ended up being more about laughter than actual fright (though anyone who hadn’t seen the end of one particular film got a real shock indeed)! Aside from the kitschy clothing and the evolution of seventies and eighties hairstyles to be observed, the older movies were more like moral lessons for the younger generations. The kids soon began trying to predict who would die first (the slutty female characters were always a shoe-in to go down first) and then tried to identify foreshadowing that indicated which death would befall every member of the cast. It was a really fun evening.
This year’s titles are less about the old and even include a newer title. We’ll be watching Poltergeist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose or The Exorcist-whichever one wins the party-time vote, and we’ll end with an almost light-hearted romp through Zombieland!
The following weekend, and one week before Halloween, Ziggy and his pals will get a Fright Fest of their own. DaVelma and her crew will be attending their homecoming dance, so Ziggy and his friends will have a less-horrific pair of movies to enjoy. Their double feature will be something along the lines of Caspar the Friendly Ghost and one of the Addams Family movies.
I’ll be doing my best to come up with food and drink items that look gross or neatly deceptive so as to be the hit of the parties!
Hope everyone else has a great Halloween!
Spook you later!