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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Before You Go: ‘Halloween’

CRL's John Gray scares up another wonderful column.

Admit it. Christmas is great, the 4th of July is a blast, but for downright devilish fun, Halloween is the best. From decorating the house to haunted hayrides and free candy to that convenient excuse to dress up like someone wild and blame it on the holiday. I’ve never met a naughty nurse at a party who didn’t say, “This isn’t really me. It’s just for fun you know.” Ah ha, whatever you say darling. Halloween brings out the naughty child in all of us I suppose, and since it’s only once a year, why not?

If you love Halloween you can thank your ancestors. The tradition dates back a couple thousand years ago to the Celts living on lands that now make up Ireland, The United Kingdom and parts of France. Back then they celebrated the New Year on November 1st and many believed that on the night between the ending of one year and the beginning of the next the wall between this world and the afterlife was very thin. So thin, in fact, that the spirits from the other side could waltz right through it and on that one night, October 31st, roam the countryside with us mere mortals.

Now I don’t know about you, but if my Uncle Buck, who’s been dead for 20 years, decided to rise from the grave and stop by for a game of Yahtzee, I might be a little freaked out. Solution? Get out of the house so I won’t be there when he knocks on the door. And since I don’t want to be rude, I’ll leave him a little sweet treat out on the front steps, something called a ‘Soul Cake’. It was kind of like the Hostess Twinkie of the day. I know what you’re thinking now – what if I bump into him at the local Starbucks ordering a cappuccino to wash down the cake he just ate? Worry not. I’ll just wear a mask of some sort so he won’t recognize me. This is how the idea of masks and treats on Halloween was born.

Years later, around the ninth century, the Pope wasn’t crazy about all the boogeyman stuff associated with this holiday so he designated November 1st “All Saints Day”, a special day to honor our saints and martyrs. It was also known as All Hallows Day. That made the night before, October 31st, All Hallows Eve.

Smush those three words together and add an ‘n’ and you get Halloween.

A few centuries later when Europe got crowded and food and work got scarce, many viewed America like it was a great big Marshalls; you know, quality stuff at bargain prices. People flocked here and brought with them this fun custom of dressing up on October 31st and going door to door looking for food or treats. Eventually the snack size Snickers bar was invented and people figured out it was easier to buy those than bake a thousand little soul cakes. The rest is history.

I loved trick or treating. I can still see my brothers and me dumping our bounty on my parent’s big bedspread and trading treats that each other liked. Kit Kat bars and M&M’s were like the Boardwalk and Park Place of Halloween candy in my house, with Bit-O-Honey and Necco Wafers fetching much less in trade. Halloween may be bad for your teeth, but it can definitely sharpen your business skills.

There was always that one house that turned the lights off and refused to participate. I’m sorry to say in my old neighborhood that often brought an egg or two flying in their direction. Not me, of course, but some hoodlums I was told not to play with. I suspect a few of them are still throwing eggs to this day. Years later when I worked at the local Stewart’s shop I was always on the lookout for teenage boys trying to buy three dozen eggs on October 31st. I’d say, “Is mom baking a cake for five hundred people?”  They’d usually return the eggs to the cooler without saying a word.

I love scary movies and there’s no shortage of them on cable this month. To this day I think “The Exorcist” is the scariest with the original “Halloween” running a close second. Whenever I see someone’s white sheets blowing in the breeze on a clothesline I keep expecting to see Michael Myers hiding there. Just thinking about it gives me a chill.

I also enjoy local ghost stories. I can’t drive past Graceland Cemetery on Delaware Avenue without looking for the ghostly hitchhiker in her prom dress and I’ll never forget the night I went to the old Forest Hills Cemetery in Brunswick on a dare. I’d heard it was haunted and make no mistake: in my 13-year-old mind every shadow was moving that cold windy night.

Now that I’m older I can’t be traipsing around graveyards at midnight, but being a boy there’s one spooky wish that remains unfulfilled. I’d like to spend one night alone in the old Walloomsac Inn in Bennington, Vermont. With its weathered wood, broken shutters and faded curtains, I’m certain there’s a specter or two haunting those hallways. Would I make it through the night or go screaming into the darkness? It would be fun to find out, and of course, write about it.

Once when when I was driving by I saw a woman looking out the window so I stopped to inquire about the historic inn. I knocked and knocked, but no one answered the door. I peered through the dusty glass panes and the house appeared empty. As I drove home I told myself the woman was probably sick of curious tourists bothering her and retired to a room out of view. But part of me wonders if she was ever there at all. Given it was such a quick glance, perhaps it was merely a trick of light making me see something that wasn’t really there. I think the next time I venture that way I’ll take a photograph of the Walloomsac with my old black and white camera. Something tells me if I look close enough I just might see someone looking back.

John Gray
John Gray
John Gray is an Emmy-winning journalist and writer. In addition to his 32 years of television experience, John is the author of three children's books and two novels. He is married with three children. He and his lovely wife Courtney have five dogs, three of them are rescues with special needs. They make their quiet home in Rensselaer County.

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