Outside of catastrophes, Halloween is the only collective experience I’ve ever known. The rest of my childhood is a filmstrip of tedious suburban solitude made interesting only by the vaguely criminal characters—lonely shoplifters, computer hackers, homemade-nitroglycerin fanatics—to whom I was drawn during those endless (wonderful) stretches of time between school and parents-coming-home, that lingering sunset time in which dangerous things could happen (or so we thought) before racing home and plopping ourselves (my twin brother and me) in front of the TV, pretending to watch Bewitched. Sound of a Honda Accord, bark from the dog, Mom is home.
I don’t have an individual’s memory of my Halloweens; every one of them exists as a group experience, and how can this be so? How can I be sure that it was not myself alone but all of us—seven or eight boys—who decided, at the astonishing age of 6 years old, that there was nothing more ravishing in the world than Erica Ross arriving at the first-grade classroom in a homemade Cleopatra costume all gold and fake braids and a carefully pleated dress? Every one of us sweated inside the store-bought plastic masks of Spider-man, Batman, or Captain Marvel. How do I have a termite mound’s memory of third-grade Halloween, when every boy came in his tai-kwan-do outfit prepared to wage battle as Luke Skywalker, only to be greeted by a terrifying black-caped Jeff Friedman as Darth Vader, whose laser-technology father had created a glowing lightsaber that far surpassed any of our painted cardboard mailing tubes? Why can I not recall, in that extraordinary year of 1981, the pinnacle of grade-school costuming, when four of us went out each dressed as a different puzzle game, which of us was the Rubik’s Cube, which the Pyramid, which the Missing Link? How can I not know which painted echoing cardboard box I wore? It has become something like a tribal memory for me.
Because of this, I have no anecdotes of Halloween. I can remember very clearly the spring day when I got my loafer stuck in the mud and my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Poppy—whom I adored, with her curled bouffant red hair and gigantic sunglasses, who was the first teacher to encourage my writing, who must have been only 23 at the time, and underpaid, newly married, bored to tears by all of us—saw me there stuck in the mud, whining like a baby, and started laughing at me. I remember the strange little panic attacks that would come over me now and then—outside or during PE or, often, during a quiz of some kind—and the world would sound harsh and different and I would wonder if I was going insane (the only haunting in this story). I remember spending all my allowance on an Izod sweater that all the kids were wearing and stupidly shrinking it, the next week, in the dryer. Those things only happened to me. But Halloween happened to all of us. All of us suffered through Steve Tucker’s “Haunted House” and its peeled-grape eyeballs and spaghetti intestines in order to gorge ourselves on Snickers, and all of us rolled our eyes at the Scottish immigrants who handed out sugar “Dots” on rolls of paper instead of real candy, and all of us, in an anguish, threw away the caramel apples on sticks that divorced Mrs. Tracy cooked up so carefully, unaware, without custody of her son, and access to razorblade news, that children could not eat apples anymore in the modern world. And all of us were forced to wear coats over our costumes, which we could shed outside each house. And all of us avoided the teenagers armed with toilet paper and eggs. And all of us went to bed at night carefully portioning out the candy we had gotten so it could last a lifetime.
What is one to make of youth?