Wednesday, October 30, 2019


When asked what costumes they wanted to wear for Halloween this year, both of my grandsons said, “Pennywise.” Despite being fans of Stephen King, both of my daughters said “No” to their son’s request.

I thought it interesting that both of them would choose the costume of a character in a movie neither of them has ever seen (at ages 11 and 9, they’re a little young for IT.) And yet, Pennywise has become part and parcel of the Culture of Fright, and both of them know all about him, even if they haven’t even read the book.

I’ve always wondered if kids who choose scary costumes as opposed to fantasy (princess) or occupational (astronaut) costumes are trying to get a handle on something that otherwise scares them. As if becoming a partner of the thing that frightens them will give them a handle on how to deal with that fear.

If that’s so, maybe my earliest costumes were telling. For two years in a row, I’m guessing Kindergarten and first grade, or maybe first and second grade, I wore the same costume. Part of it was purely economics: the dang thing fit me the second year and so no one had to put out any kind of money to get me a new one. (We weren’t creative about costumes when I was a little kid. We were into Woolworth’s.) So for two years in a row, I dressed up as a devil.

Hmmm. When The Exorcist hit the big screen while I was in college, I lined up to see it like everyone else. I don’t mind saying that the movie traumatized me for years. And I mean years. As terrifying as I found The Haunting the first time I saw it, as freaked out as I was about the sci-fi thriller H-Men, and as disturbed as I was by The Zombies of Moro Tau, nothing ever exploded my psyche like The Exorcist. And I had read the book, too. Something about it struck way too close to home, and I needed a long time to get past it. Maybe I should say, quiet it down. I still won’t watch it. Did I already know I had this particular fear back when I was in early grade school?

A few years later, I made the classic choice and dressed up as a ghost. No, I didn’t cut eyeholes into a sheet and put it over my head. I just used the old sheet like a winding shroud. If I had been clever, I might have cut it up a bit to make it look tattered, but that didn’t occur to me. I just wanted to look like an apparition. I’m sure I mostly just looked like some weird kid wandering the streets in a bedsheet, but what the heck. At least it wasn’t a Casper costume from Woolworth’s.

Still, that fascination with ghosts was already there. At the time, I was too young to be doing sleepovers at friends’ houses, so I didn’t yet realize how different my house was. But clearly something had taken root in my brainbox. Shortly after dressing up as a ghost, I began writing my first ghost stories. I had already started collecting them in print, thanks to Scholastic Book Fairs.

I no longer dress up for Halloween. I haven’t been to a party in years, and I think the last time I donned anything resembling a costume was at my first job in health care. I was working reception and business office and we were invited to dress up for the big day. The first year I turned myself into a skater boy complete with backwards baseball cap, untucked shirt, and a pair of jeans that were huge on me. I nearly got kicked out of the office before they realized it was just me. If I were to be invited to a Halloween party now and dressing up became mandatory, I have no idea what I would wear. I don’t even know what I would want to wear.

I admire adults who still put on fancy dress, and I really admire those who do Cos-play at Comic-Con and events like that. I apparently don’t have the inclination or the skill to put together something really fetching out of a universe I enjoy. I guess that when it comes to costumed characters, I’d still rather just read the book.

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