Here is a Halloween tradition, circa 1892, as described by an article in the New York Times: You hang a stick by a string from the ceiling. At one end of the stick is an apple; at the other end, a lit candle. You spin the stick around, and try to snag the apple with your teeth without getting your face burned off.
By the time I was a kid, in the 1980s, not much had changed.
In our town, Halloween was terrifying and thrilling, and there was a whiff of homicide. We’d travel by foot in the dark for miles, collecting candy, watching out for adults who seemed too eager to give us treats. At that time, rumors on the evening news said maniacs were injecting Almond Joys with rat poison, tucking razor blades inside candy apples before handing them out to children.
Granted, no one in my gang would touch a candy apple in the first place—caramel on a piece of fruit being so much lipstick on a pig. But we knew death was possible. If it wasn’t the psychopaths, some high school kid might shoot you in the mouth with a BB gun, or make you drink raw eggs. There were seven of us who lived a short walk from each other’s houses; perhaps by the first morning of November we’d be six. Halloween, all told, was fantastic.
Today, though, it’s tough to conceal a Gillette Mach 4 Vibrating Razor inside a Mars bar. I’ve become an adult, and having seen how adults mostly ruin Halloween, I’ve also become a Halloween Scrooge.
In our semi-rural neighborhood, children are chauffeured around on Halloween in minivans, before dusk. They trick-or-treat in broad daylight, shuffling to and from houses like refugees, between colonnades of guardians, as if Halloween was now monitored by UN peacekeepers. Our nation’s one night dedicated to horror has become a soccer-practice carpool. And sure enough, the costumes are feeble, store-bought. I’d make a joke about wishing kids these days would dress like tramps, as in hobos, rather than tramps, as in Katy Perry, but Andy Rooney would probably sue me for copyright infringement.
However, my Scrooge-ness does not extend to candy.
If I see a roll of Bubble Tape, a bag of Haribo Gold-Bears or a pouch of green-apple Big League Chew, I’m eleven again. The great thing about candy is that it can’t be spoiled by the adult world. Candy is innocent. And all Halloween candy pales next to candy corn, if only because candy corn used to appear, like the Great Pumpkin, solely on Halloween.
My mother still has a three-step system to eating candy corn. First she eats the white tip, then the orange middle, then the yellow end. She swears each segment tastes different. While writing this article, I emailed three friends versed in statistics and asked them how many ways you can eat a piece of candy corn. Assuming that no bite’s smaller than a single segment, they worked out an answer: nine. The formula they devised, which I don’t understand even slightly, is this:
W = 9 + Sum over t, t = 1 to 2 [ (Z_t | Z_t-1)*(D_t | D_t-1) ]
W= Ways to eat a candy corn
Z = Size of bite
D = Side of bite
t = bite occasion
My wife saw this and told me the statisticians had missed one option: you can also bite a piece of candy corn in half lengthwise, “so you get a little piece of each segment in each bite.”
I told her that was ludicrous.
“I have very firm opinions about candy corn,” she said, and went on to trash my preferred brand, Brach’s, saying their candy was waxy compared to her favorite, Farley’s.
If candy corn is where I still find my Halloween innocence, it was my father who set me on the road to becoming a Scrooge. In seventh grade, news spread around our town that all the kids, all the town’s children from sixth to ninth grades, were gathering on Halloween night at one of the elementary schools for an egg and shaving-cream war. Pharmacies were quickly depleted of Barbasol. I bought six cans with my allowance, and modified their aerosol tops with a hot needle in order to shoot farther.
My mother somehow heard the rumor. She came outside, where I was testing my assault range, and forbade me from even going. She went the extra mile: “No one in our family has ever gone to jail,” she said. “If you get caught by the police, we aren’t bailing you out. You’ll sit in that jail for weeks.”
I was stunned. I hadn’t even realized “jail” was a possibility. Now I’d be left there to rot? Instead, my friend John and I roamed our neighborhood that Halloween, John being likewise banned. All our friends were gone; they were having the best night of their lives. We ate candy corn and shaving-creamed a few mailboxes without much joy. When we got home at ten, we must’ve looked pitiful, because my dad came out and told us we could go ahead and shaving-cream the garage if we were going to act so pathetic about it.
The next morning, my mom found the side of her garage etched with John’s and my initials, three feet high like graffiti tags. Apparently menthol shaving cream burned through paint. Well, we hadn’t known. My mother was furious. She even called John’s mom. “But dad said we could,” I insisted.
She consulted my father, who was raking leaves. He said he didn’t know what I was talking about.
That November, John and I repainted the garage. I never trick-or-treated again. It wouldn’t be until I graduated from high school that my father copped to his betrayal, and by that time I’d crashed his car, so we were even, probably.
But this Halloween, I’ve decided to set my Scrooge aside—there’s no fun in it, only humbug. Instead, I’m carving a pumpkin with a big exclamation point, and any children brave enough to visit will receive full-size candy bars. Afterward we’ll all play spin the candle. And if a parent calls the police, my wife has promised to bail me out. It’s going to be great.