I don’t have many memories from kindergarten. I remember Paul Angelos, heavyset and Greek and the first bully our class ever encountered¹, scrawling a curse word on the side of our bright red plastic playhouse. I remember guiltily stealing an intricately-detailed toy space shuttle that had been die-cast from some kind of dense metal – I stowed it in my palm and could still hide it completely by closing my fingers, such was its size, and yet it had considerable heft, and dragged at me in my pockets as I walked out of the gate and home. I remember also a night one December when my father read Christmas stories to a group of us as we sat cross-legged in pajamas around his chair; what stands out most in my mind is that it was the first time I’d heard ‘Saint Nick’ used as a sobriquet for Santa Claus.
What I remember most is a grey afternoon when I was sitting alone on a swing in the playground, idly moving back and forth by the tiniest of swaying degrees, scraping my shoes, heel and toe, along the ground. In my memory, this scene is close-bordered; there is only me and the stillness of the dull sky, the moment unbroken by other voices or, indeed, any trace of human presence. It’s the earliest memory I have of complete contentment, a feeling I didn’t have words for at the time.
I have no recollection of when either the concept or the word ‘ghost’ entered my consciousness. It must have occurred at one point, but I can’t pinpoint exactly when – all I know is at one point the idea of such a thing did not exist to me, and then, somehow, it did. Likewise Halloween – although I know it didn’t take me long to figure out that Halloween is the worst holiday of all if you grow up in Australia.
A kind of cultural osmosis occurs over here as you gain more and more exposure to American TV, and American books, and American movies. Concepts and facts like the Gettysburg Address, what Willis might be talking about, and the exact nature of the relationship between head cheerleaders and quarterbacks seep into your awareness. You also learn that once a year there comes a time when the air is thick with spirits, and witches fly through the night, and devils congregate to laugh over a fresh pot of telemarketer’s hearts, and, best of all, you get to be a part of it. You get to be an angel or a demon, a hero or a villain, a vampire or a detective or a pirate or anything you can think of, and people have to give you candy, and if they don’t, you get to mess up their house.
You get to bob for apples, and carve Jack O’Lanterns, and dream of how awesome it would be if a mummy or a vampire or a werewolf ripped Paul Angelos’s still-living head from his body and carried it, screaming all the while, into the shadows and away.
For a kid like me, who thrived on stories that scared me, this sounded like paradise. I regularly went to bed only to remain awake and terrified of Pennywise the Clown, or creeping severed hands, or, after reading one particularly gruesome ghost story, a spectral, ectoplasmy green monkey-like creature which turned out to be the spirit of a murdered child whose small corpse had been weighted down and hidden in an overgrown well (hence the green).
What you don’t know, growing up in Australia and looking forward to Halloween, is that you’re going to be looking forward for a long, long time. Inexorably, the grim discussion draws closer, and, eventually, and innocently, you ask your parents what they’ll be handing out to kids for Halloween this year, and the axe falls.
In my head, this discussion always occurs with the parent in question glancing over the top of a newspaper, unconcerned with the devastating blow they’re about to deliver to their child. As if it’s nothing – nothing, of no importance – the cursory admission will come: ‘Oh, Halloween? No, we don’t celebrate that in Australia. That’s an American holiday.’
With that statement, a little more of your childhood bleeds away, and you start to think of how someday, you’re going to make all of those American children pay for this.
The Truson kids were the only Australians I remember ever celebrating Halloween. There were four boys, the youngest of whom was in my grade, with about a year between each of them. Lank brown hair and a puckered, upturned goblin nose that dripped incessantly ran in the family, so the Trusons probably counted their blessings they never had a girl.
Whether it was bravery, or ignorance, or simply a sheer refusal to buckle under the weight of reality, I don’t know, but one year the Truson kids convinced their parents to let them go trick-or-treating. On the way back home from going to the supermarket, in the late afternoon sunlight, my mother and I drove past them. Three of them, a tiny pack of costumed children clutching bags, were walking slowly down the long emptiness of the road, hustled and clucked over by Mrs. Truson all the while.
I have no doubt they received absolutely nothing for their trouble, because no Australian household would have laid in supplies in preparation. Over here, every house is the house that gives you fruit. The Trusons would have returned home with Halloween sacks of apples, oranges, and bitter-tongued disappointment.
It’s not that I particularly liked Jamie Truson, but I could sympathise. On Halloween in Australia, no child is an island.
High school Halloween parties were usually non-events, where costumes were rare things. It was as if we knew this wasn’t for us, that while we could pretend Halloween was global, underneath, we remained just that – pretenders.
When I was seventeen, I lobbied my then-girlfriend to watch The Lost Boys with me, to at least mark the occasion with a sense of the supernatural. I figured maybe I could create a kind of bubble of appropriate eeriness around us if I just kept the event small and personal enough; if I didn’t over-extend the boundaries of my Halloween to the point where they would collapse before the pounding waves of dogged Australian non-observance.
It was that night I learned my girlfriend had an annoying, and incessant, habit of interjecting either an opinion or what she assumed might be the next line into films.
‘See,’ she said knowledgeably, lying on her couch and adding her own commentary for the hundredth time as Corey Haim, unaware that Jason Patric was stalking up the stairs towards him, sang falsetto in the bathtub, ‘that shows that he’s still young and innocent.’²
I clenched my teeth, silently.
This was clearly not to be the Halloween of my childhood dreams.
My one opportunity to wear a costume came some years ago, when a friend, who holds the same love for October 31 in his heart as I, threw a small party. We carved pumpkins – harder than I originally assumed, although the amateurish jaggedness of my carving lent my lantern a twisted, malicious appearance later, after the sun had gone down- and I wore a singlet and suspenders and went as Indestructible Sam³. And while it was fun, it wasn’t the overwhelming, all-encompassing experience I wanted.
I want the Halloween I grew up hearing about – the one with the paper bats and the fake cobwebs, the skeleton cut-outs and the candy and the cheerful phantoms hanging from the ceiling, with the costumes and the ghost stories and the Halloween specials on TV⁴, with the unquiet dead climbing out of crypts to scour the earth, looking for David Wills.
I want it.
I need it.
So this year, I’m going to cross the Pacific to get it.
The last time I left America, I promised myself I wasn’t going to miss one single further chance to have a real Halloween. On Wednesday morning I’ll be boarding a plane to San Francisco, to have my first proper and true All Hallow’s Eve, to search out that same feeling of contentment I remember from being a child alone under a wide, featureless sky.
As a plus, that means I get to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos as well.
And while I referenced this in a comment on Cynthia Hawkins’s board recently, this, to my mind, sums up what Halloween is all about.
Enjoy, and have a Happy Halloween.
¹ Poor Paul Angelos. He was one of those kids who was just born a couple of sizes too big and turned his confused rage at that fact on the rest of the world. In second grade he left and his position was taken by William Gount, who was less a bully than a swirling vortex of pallid skin and phlegm. Will’s proudest times were the occasions when he would blow his nose into his hand in full view of the class and then, in a single motion, swallow the resulting mass.
² Which might have been OK, had her suggestions for what the next line would be not been wildly wrong, every single time.
³ Samuel Dombey’s tragic tale is told here.
⁴ To add insult to injury, given the difference between Australian and American programming schedules, it is not uncommon for Halloween specials to screen in March.