Of Ghouls and Gratitude

by

10/30/2021

Neighborhood: Park Slope

Halloween candy chute

This time a year ago there was talk of canceling Halloween in New York. Though I am a parent of two children, I was unconcerned. Up until that point, Halloween had been a minor event on our family’s calendar. 

The parent listservs, however, were abuzz with ideas on how to make Halloween happen. The problem to solve seemed to be how to trick or treat while maintaining social distance. There was talk of a pumpkin scavenger hunt and candy chutes, but I didn’t think anybody would go to the trouble to actually make them. October 2020 was pre-vaccine and just before the presidential election. For our part, we were just starting to take off masks when playing outdoors with friends. All were warning of a grim winter. 

Unlike many, we had an in-person schooling option: our scrappy, tiny, free school had pieced together an intricate schedule of outdoor learning, Zoom, and select indoor days. Some days my kid was jumping to go, other days we had to cajole and insist, and sometimes we let him stay home. My own teaching on Zoom was an exhausting, family affair. In other words, run of the mill pandemic parenting. 

In my Brooklyn childhood, my mother was resigned to Halloween. My costumes tended to be last minute. Mostly, she wanted us indoors and safe before it got too late. 

“People cause trouble on Halloween,” she said. 

Every year, there were the stories: Nair in shaving cream cans that would dissolve your hair; poison injected by needles into wrapped candies; razor blades in apples. I believed them. 

But as a parent, I was determined to be ready for Halloween. When my kid was three, I stayed up late the night before making a surfboard out of cardboard, duct tape and an old dress. He trick-or-treated at one house, ate the candy, jumped around for ten minutes, started crying, and asked to go home. The next year, when he was four, he picked out a Buzz Lightyear costume. He wore it every day for two weeks, until Halloween when he refused to wear it. After school that day, he only wanted to go to our corner deli and buy a lollipop. He didn’t accept the free candy. We went home. The next day he was Buzz Lightyear again. 

My mother wasn’t wrong. Teenagers and adults do run around in terrifying masks of Freddy and Jason and dress as zombies, and grotesque clowns with bloody grins. There is permission to misbehave. The day after, the sidewalks are littered with dried eggs and the innards of smashed pumpkins, and the local news recounts violent and terrible Halloween-themed crimes. 

But Halloween is also for playing with fear. In my gentle and staid Park Slope neighborhood, the brownstones are covered with giant spiders, crawling out of windows, and skeletons reaching out of flowerbeds. Bats, rats, snakes, and ghouls appear above doors, in windows, and on gates. Grim Reapers hang from trees, scythes in hand. One house by the park has two life-sized bloody mouthed figures, what I suppose are zombie babies, crawling down the brick façade. Everywhere we see death and nightmares made tactile with plastic, cloth, and paint. 

My kid loves it, as does his twenty-month-old little sister. 

“We need a skeleton!” he says, and I’m compelled to agree that yes it would look “epic” sitting in front of our house. 

Last October we’d all been in a real life dance with death for months. Our city had shuddered through its months as the epicenter of the pandemic. We’d walked by refrigerated trucks, serving as morgues, parked outside hospitals. Every parent had to sit down with their kid and try to explain viruses and contagion and caution and safety. One set of friends had begun doing that by calling it “the sickness,” just as a placeholder until they figured out better words, but their kid took it in and would say in his four-year-old voice, “We can’t go to the library because of The Sickness.” My kid had had swabs stuck up his nose, wore a mask for much of the day, and learned to wash his hands up to a count of twenty.

Halloween arrived on a Saturday. Sunny. Gorgeous. Not too hot or cold. We set out after the baby’s morning nap not sure what to expect. My kid wore his Buzz Lightyear costume again. It barely fit. He zipped ahead on his purple scooter. We stuck a bear hat on the baby, and I wore a crown of marigolds. I can’t remember if my partner had a costume. 

Within a block and a half, we came to our first candy chute. A man sat at the top of his stoop, the tube taped to his railing, and a bin placed just so at the bottom. His house was decorated and he wore a huge jester hat. My kid approached hesitant. 

“Happy Halloween!” the man boomed. “Now, stand right there in the orange square.” 

My kid looked and indeed there was a bright taped orange square. 

“Ready?”

My kid nodded. 

The man dropped one, then two, then three candies through the chute. They sped through with a satisfying rattle, flew out, and landed just so in the box at his feet. My kid shouted and jumped with a grin. 

“Look! Look! I got three candies!” 

And he danced away. 

We waved and thanked the man. 

That was only the beginning. On every block there were elaborate candy chutes to be discovered. One was a dragon spitting its candy and roaring. There were also stoops lined with goody bags, contactless treats to be discovered as we wandered. Adults waited in front of houses, costumed and happy, complimenting the costumes of the children, cueing them to deliver their line, though quickly my kid needed no prodding to holler, “Trick or treat” at these perfect strangers who smiled and laughed.

We took a break on an avenue closed to traffic for Open Streets and ate sandwiches. I could not believe the bliss of the day we were living out in public, amongst our neighbors. I felt happier, lighter than I had in months. 

My kid ran, hopped, laughed, and chattered, and I grinned and laughed with him, until I was crying. I grabbed my partner’s arm. “It’s just so beautiful.” 

“It is. But which part do you mean?”

“All these strangers took all this time and money just to make a bunch of kids they never met happy.” 

This holiday, this day of tricks and witches and ghouls: here was a true community celebration. Halloween is treated as the misfit of the holiday season, but I am now convinced it is in fact the most genuine of them all. Unmoored from the major religions, forbidden by some, marked by sin and recklessness, I had been blind to its true magic. We dally with fear and invite our kids and ourselves to be loud and silly. And in doing all that it seems we allow ourselves to be generous without a hint of sanctimony or expectation of reward. 

The day after, November 1st, was chilly and grey. After breakfast, my partner took our kid to CityMD. Turns out we knew someone who had tested positive and my kid needed a COVID test. The line was long, but he was Buzz Lightyear again and, no matter that it was 10 AM, we let him bring along his stash and he ate candy out of his toy pumpkin while he waited. A few months later, on Christmas, my partner would fall ill with COVID and we’d usher in 2021 in a strictly quarantined household.

Halloween 2020 is now part of our family lore. “That was the best day,” we’ll say, apropos of nothing. The pressure on us in the preceding months had been excruciating, and we sensed there was more coming. But for that one day, we were given an escape from the horrors of pandemic life by witches, zombies, werewolves, even the Grim Reaper himself, all of them smiling and waving to us from the top of their stoops. 

***

Jade Sanchez-Ventura is a writer and a radical educator. Though she spent her first five years of life on the move, she has since made her home in Brooklyn. Her recent series, “Home is Where We…”, a collaboration with photographer Ro Agents, examines how COVID has redefined our domestic spaces and can be found at MUTHA Magazine. 

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§ 2 Responses to “Of Ghouls and Gratitude”

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    brought back lots of memories of NYC Halloweens long ago, when the citty was considered “dangerous” — the late ’70s, early ’80s,– but not because of a pandemic. it heartens me to know that parents then and parents now are creative and their children are infinitely adaptable. thank you!

  • Jade SV says:

    Love that, Susan and thanks for the comment.

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