Orange-red sunset sky streaked with grey-black wisps from burning maple and oak leaves lower over the elms surrounding the large white house on the corner of South and Main streets in a small Midwestern town on a crisp October day about 1953. Rising some feet above street level the lawn levels at the sidewalk before continuing on to the evergreen shrubs around the porch that wraps around two sides of the house facing the street. A lumber yard owner built the house as a wedding present for his daughter at the turn of the twentieth century. From the roof of the porch it rises one story for the bedroom level before sloping up the the gabled third story of the attic, except for the one turreted tower which surveys the South and West over the tops of the elms. Broad steps in a short flight ascend from the yard to the porch. To the left is a screened enclosure for summer use, now vacant, the screens stored under the decking. A large plate glass window and large varnished door face the steps. The window shows the living room which runs almost the length of the house. The door leads into a vestibule which echoes voices and foot steps.
On most nights the house is well lit as it is now occupied by a family of six, who find it neither commodious nor snug, but just a pleasant fit. Or normal in that special way that everything one is used to is accepted as normal, no matter what other's may think. Tonight the house is dark and soon will loom over the street, its tower picked out by the moon or suddenly lost as the cumulus scud by.
"Damn, I wish the tower had a window," says Henry. "that's where the lantern should hang."
Instead, he and Leonard hung the lamp below the tower in Earle and Dorothy's bedroom window. That and the porch light by the door were the only illumination to greet the costumed youngsters now passing up and down the town.
They began planing a week ago and who knows how much earlier they had thought about it. Henry at sixteen was not so excited by simple Halloween canvassing. Leonard, at fourteen, was open to new horizons. Only I, at 9, still counted the swag as the important part of the festival. So they put their heads together with their friends to plot and concoct.
Down to the basement for wood and hammers to make noise making contraptions. up to the attic to find this or that. The house in an uproar. Dorothy called the friends hoodlum companions with that disapproving pride that parents reserve for their teenage children, especially the boisterous ones with healthy imaginations and good social nous.
They talked Dorothy into wearing her long black cape to greet the trick-or-treaters. She carried a lit candle and invited the hopefuls in. Beyond the vestibule was a hall with a double door to the living room, a single door to the dining room, more doors to a couple of closets and a staircase that climbed to a landing lit by a window onto the porch then up to a second landing and a final short run to the hall above. Though there were adequate electric lights, tonight all was dark save for Dorothy's candle and a lantern held aloft by Leonard in grease paint to turn his skin a sickly green. He affected a twisted frame and began a patter in a high creaky voice of nonsense about how happy he was to see them and weren't they nice and round, he did so like fat little birds to his dinner, and similar nonsense as he led them upstairs to tour the old place. Arrived in the square hall upstairs the intrepid faced five doors and a narrow hallway leading past more doors to a narrow dark corkscrew backstair to the kitchen. Behind each door was one or more of the hoodlum companions equipped with various noisemakers: duck calls, ratchets, creaking boards, and props such as dismasted heads, skeletal hands, and rattle-able sabers.
And they whispered.
They reached out a skeletal hand to a young shoulder. From behind. In the dark. "A bit for the poor, Sonny?"
And Leonard, patter at max, led them down the raucous, cacophonous, but most of all dark, hall through cobwebs made of fine yarn or thread, by the half mannequin floating at the end of a tiny hall, past the drip of water reminiscent of Europe's finer dungeons. Behind them doors opened and closed. Screams floated after any stragglers. Odd thumps that might have been headsman's axes sounded.
At last the group reached the back stair where Leonard, oh so sincerely, warned them to mind their step.
Arrived at the bottom, a dark door barred the way forward. On the other side of this was the kitchen with a vat of mulled cider on the hob and dozens of doughnuts from our quite good local bakeshop.
There was also a well lit door at the top of a short flight of steps to the back door and the street.
Most of the trick-or-treaters accepted that the trick was on them and fled, crying into the night. The hardiest recruited themselves heartily. But most of the treats survived.
That was Henry's plan: Lot's of doughnuts and cider for Leonard, Henry, and the hoodlum haints of the haunted house.
Perhaps this sounds a bit hokey today. But this was before Shock Theater's host, Marvin, taught all us fifties teens to shudder to Karloff, Chaney and Lugosi as TV ran and re-ran the great horror flics of the thirties. And those were all done without bluescreen, let alone computer graphics.
More about Lugosi here.
Happy Samhain, all
tags: Feast of Holidays, Bela Lugosi, Halloween, haunted house