All grown up
Photos and Story by Virginia Holman
In the 1970s, when I was little, I lived in a townhouse complex in coastal Virginia that was full of Navy brats. In those days, Halloween was fun but simple. Kids rummaged through castoffs from the sewing baskets to fashion a quick costume — cut two holes in an old bedsheet (solid colors were best, but florals were cheerfully tolerated) trim the bottom so as not to trip and voila, you were a ghost. If you were willing to plan a full hour ahead, a quick tour of the women’s closets could yield a flouncy skirt and top. Paired with hoop earrings, a thick stripe of eyeliner and a teacup or a large snow globe, and you were a mysterious fortune-teller. Witches needed only a black dress, teased-up hair, a thick face-dusting of green eye shadow, and a wicked cackle. The cool kids often scored a long granny-square crocheted vest or a suede jacket with fringed sleeves — accessorized with a pair of groovy sunglasses and a flash of the peace sign; they were hippies worthy of Woodstock.
Our thrown-together costumes weren’t artistic creations; they were simply a means to an end — a way to get the loot. We coveted Smarties, Atomic Fireballs, Charleston Chews, Lemonheads, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Bottlecaps and miniature Mr. Goodbars, but rolled our eyes unkindly at those who offered pennies, apples or dry-as-dust Necco wafers — treats that seemed more like tricks.
When I moved to North Carolina in the late 1980s, I was surprised that Halloween was a big event. Chapel Hill had a wild party on Franklin Street, just across from UNC, a festive free-for-all, full of costumed students. My husband and I always enjoyed watching them early in the evening, before the merrymaking inevitably got a bit out of hand.
But it wasn’t until the early ’90s, when I had a child and moved to a Durham neighborhood full of families, that Halloween became a holiday with a capital H. Adults and kids often spent weeks planning and making costumes in their spare time. One year my 6-year-old son begged to be a leopard, just like his favorite stuffed animal. Although I had zero sewing experience (aside from the ability to thread a needle and sew on a button), I spent hours at the kitchen table tape-measuring, cutting, stitching, cursing and weeping as I wrestled to create a costume from the thick acrylic leopard-print fur I’d bought at the local fabric shop. Three days before Halloween, with sore fingers and surrounded by tufts of fur, I nearly surrendered to the drugstore costume aisle.
Since a child’s impending disappointment is a young mother’s invention, I had the presence of mind to swap needle and thread for my hot glue gun. Reader, I cut and pasted the faux fur onto a little gray sweatsuit. I even managed to repurpose a wire coat hanger to fashion a jaunty tail, and attached little leopard ears onto a headband. Success! Our leopard son ran through the neighborhood, crawling across lawns with his plastic pumpkin before popping up and roaring “Trick or Treat!” I’ve never forgotten how hard I worked on that costume and how very happy it made my little boy to transform into the powerful wild animal of his dreams.
Though my little leopard has grown and flown, I find that Halloween is the one holiday I most look forward to each year. It’s perfect: lighthearted, not hot and loud like July 4th or as overwhelmingly busy as Christmas, nor as stressful as hosting friends and family at Thanksgiving. Each year my husband and I carve a jack-o’-lantern, set up lawn chairs and a table with candy in our driveway, and watch what we call the Carolina Beach Halloween Parade. That’s because Carolina Sands, our little island neighborhood, is the best place on the island to spend Halloween. That’s in part because we’re a tight-knit, smallish neighborhood with few easy shortcuts for cars, so parents often park outside the neighborhood and let their little ones run in packs down the streets. But it’s also because we are a friendly, welcoming community.
Like most neighborhoods, people have different ways of looking and being in the world; a tour of Facebook reveals folks have plenty of differences in religion, culture, politics and work. But at Halloween, the only thing you see on social media is neighbors coming together to make sure that all the kids have a great time.
Come October, the neighborhood Facebook page is filled with questions concerning how much candy we each need to buy. One neighbor buys his candy with his weekly groceries, a couple of bags at a time, starting in September, so as not to blow his October budget. Folks post about candy sales and share BOGO coupons, and new residents ask if 2,000 pieces of candy will be enough. (The answer: Maybe. When a house runs out of candy, it’s lights off, and curtains drawn, because the kids don’t stop coming until the last house has run dry.)
I’ve never lived in a place where so many families go all out for the holiday. Empty lots are transformed into spooky, cobweb-covered graveyards, and signs for favorite political candidates are replaced temporarily with skeletons decked out in pirate garb or Hawaiian shirts and surfboards. (We are a beach community, after all.) The parade lasts from sundown till about 9. Some of our favorites from the last couple of years include a golf cart full of tiny Shriners, a meticulously constructed Edward Scissorhands, a toddler dressed as a little old lady (complete with pink track suit, pearls, rhinestone cat-eye glasses and a tiny walker), and a Colonel Sanders costume that at first glance we thought was a Tom Wolfe getup.
The thing I love most about Halloween is the variety of costumes, and the armchair psychologist in me enjoys speculating on why kids and parents choose the costumes they do. Will the children in the Jurassic Park costumes someday study filmmaking or paleontology? Will the kids dressed as Shriners become philanthropists? Time will tell. But what fun it is to watch people transform into someone else for a night and roam from door to door and be welcomed with a smile and a treat over and over again, a gesture of love on what’s supposed to be the scariest night of the year.
Author and creative writing instructor Virginia Holman lives and writes in Carolina Beach.