Halloween, Then and Now

Photo by John Griswold



When people talk about making America great again—again, or something—the best I can summon are memories of old-school customs from my own life, such as Halloweens when I was a kid. In my day, in a defunct little coal town in the Midwest, we had a hell of a good time.

That time might not sound so rocking to the TikTok youth of today. I tried to explain it to my nephew last night, who is in his 40s, as our town in the St. Louis metro area had its trick-or-treating session. The first thing out of my mouth was how in those days it was often a machinist from the washing machine factory who came to his door with a Marlboro Red squint to bemusedly drop some unwrapped candy corn from his permanently begrimed hand into your paper bag.

“What are you, a hobo or something?” he would ask of your handmade costume.

My nephew had experienced some of that innocence growing up in an ethnic neighborhood in Chicago. He brought up all the handmade treats, like popcorn balls.

“Oh! Popcorn balls!” I exclaimed. I had forgotten about popcorn balls, and we tried to recreate them verbally. “Karo syrup?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “there was Karo syrup…Karo came in light and dark….”

“The razor blades and Tylenol cyanide put an end to all that,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. He told a story about a teacher who gave a pop quiz every Halloween that everyone knew was coming. The teacher would say he had to leave the room. He ran back in wearing a werewolf mask and grabbed around at all the kids, making crude noises, then ran out. He came back in again without the mask and asked if anything weird happened while he was gone. Everybody thought it was corny and dumb but expected it and would have been disappointed if he had skipped a year.

“A teacher would be going away a good while if they tried that now,” my nephew said.

Old school was certainly not necessarily great. But my town of about 10,000 would gather in the town park, like something from Groundhog Day, everyone there, the baseball team running the game booths, the Boy Scouts selling caramel apples (no option without peanuts in those days, old son), the eldest town doctor and his wife waving hello, the old folks and the little kids and babies, everyone talking as music played from a tinny speaker and the strings of lights in the gazebo shined ever more warmly in the advancing darkness. My aunt was a semi-professional artist, so my costumes for many years were the amazing paper-mache heads she created—a Martian with big eyes and green pipe-cleaner antenna; a witch with a big hat and long chin and nose—and the clothing chosen to go with them. My sister, who was ten years older and had girlfriends on her pom-pom squad who would tease and flirt with me, made a haunted house costume out of a box, and she was the fright that popped out.

It was a community, which in many places in America can be hard to find now. But in our town now, one of the largest subdivisions goes all out. I have not seen anything like it in decades. Most houses decorate; some do it elaborately and expensively with animatronics and laser shows. There is even a haunted house and a torture garage. Families sit in their driveways, many with campfires in grates, and the candy comes out of almost every home. The streets may have a bit too much traffic in the dark as little kids dart around, but no one has been hurt, and everyone walks around until tiredness overcomes the good time. There is innocence in it, though it is a different innocence from that in my day. Today’s innocence feels more like forgiveness.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.