Style column: Natchez Halloweens gone by, not forgotten
Published 12:02 am Sunday, October 26, 2014
The Halloween season is upon us. I am one who enjoys it, sees no harm in it and has fond childhood memories of my own nighttime ritual of eliciting candies from the neighbors.
It was a lot more innocent back then, which got me to thinking on Halloweens past.
I was a kid in the ’60s and early ’70s and all of us children looked forward to Halloween.
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As the night approached, we would spend time going to the various stores in search of a cool new costume or mask. Back then, the main places to shop for costumes were Sears, Woolco, McCrory’s, Kress and maybe the grocery store.
We would wind up with simple attire but would pride ourselves on the masks, made out of stiff plastic with slits for your eyes and mouth and an elastic cord that would circle around your head to hold the device on. Masks were those of witches, goblins, devils, monsters, clowns, hobos — you name it. Of course, you also had the “non-threatening” models such as Batman, Snow White, Donald Duck, Superman and others similar. I always felt like these were sell-outs. After all, Halloween was supposed to be about scary stuff.
It was a belief that would return to haunt me.
We would begin trick-or-treating shortly after dusk. The neighborhood gang — and I mean that term in a good way — would assemble at an agreed upon spot, work out a game plan and take off into the darkness to satisfy our desire for sweets.
We were on our own. We had no fear of not being escorted by parents. Once we hit 9, we had the run of the neighborhood. We traveled in a pack, so the old “safety in numbers”’ rule came into play.
Our favorite neighborhood house to stop by was an elderly lady on the corner. She never seemed to come out much and as such, none of us really knew her. The only time she really made her presence known was when she would yell at us for sliding down her steep hill on her side yard. We would scatter to the winds, only to reconvene when we thought she was no longer looking and start the sliding all over again.
But on Halloween, she knew us, and we knew her! Her door would be open, with the screen door still shut. We would knock on the door casement, yelling, “Trick or treat!” to an apparently empty room.
Dimly lit, we would soon see her moving toward the door, carrying a tray of doughnuts. Doughnuts! She was freshly cooking them in the kitchen! Oh, I can recall that wonderful smell.
She would laugh and make comments on our costumes as she opened the creaking screen door. Our hands would shoot out toward that tray of heavenly fried dough.
“Slow down! There’s plenty for everyone,” she would say.
These treats were too good and fresh to be dumped unceremoniously into the bag with the other cavity-creating morsels. They had to be eaten right then!
Lions Club Halloween carnival at Liberty Ballpark
Hurriedly, we would get back to our respected houses, dump the contents of our bloated bags on our beds, survey the contents and pick out a few of the choice candies. We had to quickly move on for it was then time to be taken to the annual Lions Club Halloween carnival at Liberty Ballpark.
For a number of years, the Lions Club sponsored a carnival on Halloween at Chester Willis Field. The grounds were replete with rides sporting such names as The Hurricane, Tilt-A-Whirl, The Roundup, The Tornado.
At the well-run midway, with all sorts of games, you had to shell out real money in order for your chance to win some incredible prizes that you just had to have. The yelling of the “barkers” as you went all around and by the games could not be drowned out by all the other sounds. In the middle of things was a platform of judges, as there was always a costume contest held. Several times, Jack Millstein, who was a key figure at Natchez Little Theatre for many years, led the judging.
And, naturally, there was food! All the gastric indulgences commonly associated with fairs and carnivals were just waiting to be sampled: funnel cakes, caramel apples, drinks and, my favorite, corn dogs! I cannot drive past a fair or carnival without stopping to buy a couple of corn dogs.
The haunted house
Now don’t think that this setting was all innocent and fun, for sitting alone by itself was our greatest fear and challenge: the haunted house.
It shook. And it trembled. And lights would flash. And the sound! Screams, moans, shrieks, all emanating from that wicked-looking house. I had heard that once you came out from that sinister place, you were never quite the same. I could believe that by all the screaming going on and the way people would sprint out the exit. That was a mean house!
For a couple of years, none of my group would go through it. By the time I was 10, I decided the time had come. I told myself I would not be afraid. Only children were afraid of ghosts, witches and devils. I was no child!
Armed with great courage, I stepped into the line to go in. My brother and friends watched in horror, knowing that I was the biggest scaredy-cat of them. They watched as I bravely stepped forward, inching my way to the ticket puncher and the gaping mouth of the house.
“Click” went the paper punch. There was no turning back. I tried to stay calm and keep nestled between the older ones going in.
The screams became deafening — screams from all sides of me. The lights would flash, and some new foul creature would lunge forward from a hidden corner, grabbing and hissing at all within reach.
The panic was beginning to build. My game plan was starting to unravel as my forward guards were beginning to shift and spread out, leaving me very vulnerable. I thought to myself, “It’s almost over! It hasn’t been too bad…” Then it happened.
As the crowd turned a corner, a window lit up. And in that window was the face of a snarling devil, accompanied by a loud, boisterous laugh. The head shook back and forth. The face snarled and the laughter continued. The lights flickered rapidly, as if they were about to go out, and that would leave us in the darkness with that horrible, malicious creature that is clawing at the glass to get at us! My heart raced, my body shook, and all I could hear was the sound of my own screaming! Screaming, like that of a little girl!
“Move! Move it! Please, let me out of here!” I wailed. I had quickly decided that to go forward was certain death, so I turned against the flow of people. I pushed, shoved, clawed. I had to get out!
I will admit it was a little humiliating to reappear out of the entrance to the haunted house. None of my friends were around to witness this event, so I did not have to endure the embarrassment. My dignity among them was still intact.
And that is the brazen truth about my first encounter with a haunted house.
As the night wore on, we spent time and effort looking for discarded ride tickets, eager to give our favorite ride one more whirl. It seemed all too short amount of time before our parents would show up, ushering us into the cars and whisking us home, where waiting for each of us was the candy look we had left on our beds.
Looking back, I realize how awesome and innocent it all was. We never got into any mischief. We never defaced anyone’s house. There were no fights. There was no fear of accepting candies from anyone in the area, and our parents felt secure in our safety. There was no stigma attached to Halloween as there is now. I don’t remember anyone scorning the event because of its origins.
To this day, in my mind’s eye, I can still see all the images. I can recall the rides and the sounds and the smells of the night. And I cherish all of that, as it is a time that we have lost. A time of simple pleasures and fun times, governed by a sense of decorum.
I wish all of you a very safe, enjoyable Halloween.
And don’t take any balls of lint.
Burnley Cook is a Natchez resident.