What Price, Trick or Treat?
(Musings from “The Scary House”)
I’m in the horror business. In my case, as a writer, I dwell in the more reflective end of the pool, not as direct and hypercharged as the filmmakers, not as broad and showman-like as the haunted attraction mavens. But I, too, take my scares seriously. And like so many others, I wait anxiously each year for the arrival of what I hold in my heart as an additional national holiday- Halloween. Do the wife and I throw a costume party? Of course. Do we decorate our home? Copiously inside, with a sprinkling on the exterior. And as for participation in the ultimate Halloween ritual, trick or treat, let’s say ringing my doorbell is an experience with a price of admission all its own.
My small Wisconsin town, I am proud to say, still holds its trick or treat hours on the evening of Halloween, starting shortly after school is dismissed (should Halloween fall on a weekday) and ending shortly after sunset. I’m not sure what possessed me to answer my door in full costume that first year, but I knew it needed to be good (no simple rubber mask and a goofy slogan T-shirt) and it needed to be hardcore. Not a fan of the splattery or body trauma type of costume, I decided to go the route of the sinister, the brooding—not “in your face” but “in your nightmares.” The first year was an articulated foam skull mask, gray and green with grave mold. I popped in my red contact lenses, disguised any visible signs of living flesh with grease paint, a long black wig and top hat, a high collar Edwardian shirt complete with cravat, black gloves and a black Victorian style wool coat. I thought, if nothing else, it would be great fun to pull such a theatrical-grade stunt. Most of the candy-snatching kids at my door would think “oh, look, another lame grownup dressing up for Halloween” and a few might actually appreciate the authenticity or at least the effort. The result proved to be a little more than that.
I have long been fascinated by performances of various villains and wicked background players in movies, plays, etc. and I am amazed at how proper body language becomes crucial to making or breaking the part. How the head tilts when speaking or when listening, how the hands move (or do not move), the power of a well-placed, slow smile. No thespian myself, these things still translate into my own trick-or-treat “performance” when my doorbell rings. Here is the formula: I wait a few beats after the bell to build a little anxiety, then jerk the door open just a crack to start, and finally sweep the door open slowly. Then I stand and stare, and wait for the words “trick or treat” to waft my way. Sometimes they come. Sometimes they are barely a whisper. Sometimes…well, we’ll get to that. Slow and silent, I dole out candy with an understated flair, a funeral director still accommodating his visitors despite the fact he’s been dead for a decade or more.
Some bell ringers are unable to find the ritual words but merely hold out their candy sacks. I recall a small fairy princess or two running tearfully back to their adult chaperones, their interest in candy replaced by the need for a safe, warm and living bosom to which they can cling. Over the years, my wife and I have gotten into the habit of counting how many “cryers” I get. A response I remember most fondly happened on the year my costume was a heavy monk’s robe with a full blackout face inside the hood. A flaming candelabra was clutched in one black-gloved hand, and as always the movement was slow and silent. A lone youngster in a Robin Hood outfit, complete with longbow, stared into the waiting black hole of a face and, with a type of controlled panic, demanded “don’t do that.” Other than leveling a silent stare, I wasn’t doing anything. However, I nearly broke character with a burst of laughter. I believe I rewarded him with extra candy.
Already, by the second year, one of the neighborhood mothers confided in us that word was on the local school age circuit: At Halloween time, my home was known as “the scary house.” What a prideful moment it was! Of course, that put me at the base of budding tradition, and so the need to change up the outfits and keep the experience fresh each Halloween loomed up and has been a challenge ever since. Faceless princes of darkness, crazed clowns, even Darth Vader himself have manned the candy dish at “the scary house” over the years, met with smiles, goggling uncertainty, and sometimes bleats of fear. Cruel, you might say. Traumatizing, you may protest. But there is no harshness behind the man at The Scary House. I do not yowl or lash out, there is no aggression. Merely presence. It adds an extra dimension to the formula trade off: child dresses up and gets free candy for their efforts. At The Scary House, the owner, too, dresses up and you must endure a moment of discomfort, trepidation, or dark wonderment before the sweet treats land in your plastic pumpkin. It’s Halloween, after all. Its traditions are built around the belief malevolent dark spirits are roaming the land and your only hope to remain safe is to cover your identity during the cold dark hours between sunset and dawn. Should you choose to rove, there is no telling what may answer the door upon which you knock.
Dean H. Wild grew up in east central Wisconsin and has lived in the area, primarily in small towns surrounding the city of Fond du Lac, all his life. He wrote his first short horror story at the tender age of seven and continued to write dark fiction while he pursued careers in retail, the newspaper industry, and retail pharmacy. His short stories have seen publication in various magazines and anthologies including Bell, Book & Beyond, A Feast of Frights, Night Terrors II, and Horror Library 6. His novel, The Crymost, is an exploration of tradition, superstition, and encroaching horrir in a small Wisconsin town. He and his wife, Julia, currently reside in the village of Brownsville.
There is a place just outside of town where the people of Knoll, Wisconsin take their sorrows and their worries. They don’t talk much about it, and they don’t discuss the small tokens they bring as offerings to the place known as the Crymost. After all, this is Knoll, where certain things are best left unsaid. The Crymost, however, will not remain quiet for much longer. Something ancient has awakened in that remote, sorrowful place, and time is running out for its inhabitants. Long-kept secrets will need to be unearthed before the entire town succumbs to the will of a powerful, dark stranger who works hand in hand with a hungry entity crossing Knoll’s borders, invading its homes and executing a soul-draining grip on its citizens.