Hometown Halloween

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Midland, Michigan, USA – October 2012

It is the first week of October. The houses and lawns of this tranquil Midwestern town are already adorned with macabre ornaments. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve experienced Halloween season in America. When I was a child, the season began about a week before Halloween. Decorations consisted of the traditional carved jack-o’-lanterns. My brothers and sisters and I wore the costumes that my mother sewed for us. We usually wore these costumes for a few years in a row, as long as they still fit. We had a party at school and then on Halloween we went trick or treating.  When I got older, I snuck out and met up with my friends on the night before, Devil’s Night, to teepee trees and soap windows of our rivals.

Jack-o’lanterns still grace porches, but they are accompanied by flashing lights, cobwebs, or various effigies. Every house is different. Zombies seem to be the current favorite. The tone is much more violent than the witches and ghosts of my youth. Chainsaws and axes. Bloody brains and amputated limbs. The size and scope of some of these displays makes me wonder how these houses look at Christmas. Where does all of this stuff go after the festivities are done? Every shop has a display of festive products: cards, candy, costumes, candles, and other decorations. In a corner near the Halloween trinkets, a display of Christmas merchandise makes a discreet appearance.

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A few days into my visit, I meet up with Sheila, my former best friend from high school. We haven’t seen each other in over seventeen years. “Hey, you wanna go to a haunted house this weekend?” she asks me. She shows me the Sunday newspaper insert which features all of the haunted houses in Michigan. Haunted asylums, hayrides, castles, factories, forests, and farms. I’m overwhelmed by the choice. Sheila is a connoisseur of haunted houses. Most of the places are downstate, a couple of hours drive away, so she suggests the haunted house in St. Charles.

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In the time since we’ve last seen each other, Sheila and I have both gotten married. I see similarities in our husbands. They are both soft spoken and good-natured. Bill acts as a chauffeur on our trip. He knows St. Charles well and suggests that we stop off at the Rustic Inn for a drink to start our adventure.

The Rustic Inn features an impressive collection of taxidermy, including the obligatory jackalope mounted on a mirror behind the bar. I shake my head and smile. Decapitated animal heads as decoration. Gotta love Michigan. Sheila, Bill, and I chat about the weather, their jobs, and a little about my life in Budapest. Too much time has elapsed for Sheila and I to catch up on everything that has happened since we last saw each other. She has not changed at all, and yet she seems like a stranger. A comforting warmth moves through me just the same.

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There is a line for the haunted house when we arrive. While we wait, a tall man dressed as Michael Myers lurks in the shadows and stares at passersby. An insane clown prowls around. Attracted by Sheila’s laugh, he accompanies us in line. Sheila and I take turns teasing him. “The scariest thing about him is the fact that he’s wearing stripes with squares,” I say to Sheila. The clown crosses his arms and glares at us.

No photos are allowed in the haunted house, an attempt to thwart copycats. We step inside, the clown in our wake. A strobe light flickers, illuminating a girl strapped to an electric chair. A cop announces her crimes and then asks us what he should do. The clown is now pressed up against Sheila who’s giggling and squealing. The girl snarls and tosses her hair. Bill sits with his hands folded in his lap. The strobe light flickers relentlessly. A sinister vibration moves through me. Don’t you dare have a panic attack now. I scold myself. I take deep breaths and close my eyes. “Kill her!” Sheila and I scream in unison. The girl shrieks and thrashes as the cop throws the switch.

We wander through the labyrinth of chambers – darkness and light and darkness again. We are chased by blood splattered surgeons and monsters and the insane. The clown disappears along the way. We step into a spinning vortex. “Man, we need to get through here before I barf,” Sheila proclaims. Bill has not so much as flinched the whole time. In one of the last rooms, we are greeted by a massive clown wielding a machete. The ceiling is low and the walls are painted in carnival colors. Hurdy gurdy music plays. The room tilts back and forth. The clown is immobile. Every few seconds he strikes the machete on the floor, shooting sparks into the air. For the first time, a real shiver moves through me.

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We burst out into the air, laughing. “That is definitely the best haunted house I’ve been to,” Sheila says. We linger for a while in the parking lot, taking photos of the clown. Coffin rides are also for sale, but that’s not our thing.

On the way home, Bill tells us about a real haunted house in Midland. Back in the 1980s, one of his coworkers awoke and felt a presence in his house. When he turned on the light, there were entities in black robes standing in the room. They disappeared into the walls, growling. After that, his wife would see them even during the day. They moved shortly after that.

Sheila and I ask him to find out which house it is. I feel both fascination and dread. I won’t sleep well tonight.

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Near the end of my visit, on the third week of October, Sheila and I go in search of the house. It is a very modest wooden construction on a street near the Dow Chemical factory.  It’s said that the people who live around here die from cancer at a young age. A car is in the driveway and toys are scattered in the front yard. We drive by, but don’t stop. We don’t want hitchhikers of any kind.

A few blocks down Bay City Road, we come upon a similar house. We pull to the side of the road and marvel at the array of ornaments scattered about the lawn. I hop out to take photos, leaving the car door open in case we need a quick getaway.

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33 thoughts on “Hometown Halloween

  1. wow, I see people really take Halloween seriously, the decorations are amazing! Here in Europe is not that intense. Some countries celebrate Halloween, but mostly for a party purpose, and in Belgium where I live, children go trick or treat. But that’s pretty much it 🙂

    • I’ve lived in Europe for years and have gotten used to people not celebrating Halloween. It was strange seeing how much the holiday spirit has grown in America. I didn’t know that kids go trick or treating in Belgium.

      • Bonjour young lady! 🙂 scary pix, but still funny! 😉

        We lived in Houston, TX for 5 years and we never celebrated this pagan holiday… 🙂 I like your new avatar… 😉
        Un week-end formidable et bonne journée! amitiés toulousaines et poutous(bisous en occitan!)… Mélanie

  2. The most chilling part of this entire entry was when you had that shudder go through your body. The feeling of an impending anxiety attack is the worst. I had it at the bottom of the pool when I was learning how to scuba dive several years ago. That sucked.

    • Oh, gosh. If anyone should be offended by people dressing up as mental patients, it’s me. Both my father and grandmother had schizophrenia. But I’m not offended. This PC crap is really getting out of hand. Anyway, those costumes are of psychopaths, not schizophrenics. There is a difference.

  3. Halloween seems to be becoming more and more of a big deal in Australia as kids pick up on this festival due to exposure to it in media and in movies/shows. Personally, I can do without seeing too many scary clowns around. 🙂

  4. Happy Halloween!
    I’ll be with Linus in the Pumpkin Patch waiting to see the Great Pumpkin!

    “‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
    When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
    Contagion to this world.”
    ~William Shakespeare

  5. Thanks, nice post. Growing up in Ireland (where All Hallow’s Eve originated) we had a similar childhood experience to yours, one deeply rooted in old traditions, which made it spooky all by itself. Trick-or-treating down dark country lanes was petrifying enough without haunted houses and clowns! What scares me most about Halloween in the US is the number of adults who take it very, very seriously.

    • I can imagine how Halloween is in Ireland. The atmosphere must be amazing. And, you’re right, it is a little over-the-top in the US where adults are concerned. But it’s mostly harmless. 😉

  6. Loved reading this and the bit about the real haunted house gave me the creeps! I’m glad Halloween hasn’t gotten so big here in Germany though…we have the parties but not all those decorated houses. On the contrary, 1 November, “All Saint’s Day” is a national holiday here and meant to be a quiet day of remembrance of the dead.

    • Hi Kristina – I know about November 1st’s importance in much of Europe. It’s a beautiful holiday. In fact, I’m going to do a post on Poland and this tradition in a few days. Do people in Germany light candles in cemeteries as well? –Julie

      • Oh, I look forward to your Poland Post! I think they do light candles, I’m not sure. Thankfully I have no dear family members who have passed, so I will just be spending a quiet day at home 🙂

  7. I like the story you shared, so wonderful memories of your youth. In Italy Halloween is an “imported feast day”, we don’t make particular decorations, maybe some party in the night. Few people dress up in the streets.
    Like Kristina said, 1st November is more important in Italy and Europe, we celebrate all saints, and people lunch and dine together with parents. It’s like this day brings earlier a bit of Christmas’ mood” 🙂

    • “Imported feast day”. Good way to put it. Kind of like imported merchandise. 😉 I also think that All Saint’s Day in Europe has a Christmasy mood. It’s the warmth and light of all those candles and the emphasis on the family. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

  8. I miss Halloween it hasn’t totally penetrated Swedish culture yet they have embraced some aspects but there is no trick or treating and I really wanted my daughter to experience that

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