The year of no Halloween

This isn't the first Halloween of my lifetime that was canceled because of an outbreak

Published October 31, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

Empty Halloween pumpkin candy bucket (Getty Images)
Empty Halloween pumpkin candy bucket (Getty Images)

It was the year of no Halloween.

For months, a virus had kept us inside. Anyone could catch it. For most people it was just like a bad flu, but some people were dying, mostly old people. We heard about it on the news, from our parents, our teachers. I was eleven, and it was 1990, and virus-bearing mosquitoes were infecting people all over the state of Florida.

My friend Samantha's parents slathered her in Off! that summer and fall. My friend Miranda's soccer season was canceled. "St. Louis encephalitis virus" were the words in The Palm Beach Post, but we just called it encephalitis. For me, the virus was an anxious fascination, a woozy thrill. I remember running across the school playground, mourning a game of kickball cut short. The afterschool teacher's whistle, calling us inside well before dark. The waste of an afternoon, the danger edging the field like fast-moving storm clouds. Dusk was when the mosquitoes came out.

Now seven months into another virus lockdown, I tell my kids about the time when I was their age, trying to give them some perspective. "It was nowhere near as bad as COVID." The deaths were limited to our state, and they were in the single digits. The whole thing lasted just a few months. But for a kid, scale is difficult. My sons, 9 and 12, keep track of the infection and death rates with a kind of numb awe. 100,000 feels like 200,000. To them, the virus still feels faraway; in our little upstate college town, where masks are as omnipresent as Biden/Harris lawn signs, one person has died.

To me, growing up in North Palm Beach, the threat seemed real, evil in its selectivity. My brain ran through the odds. In the early '90s, my father was obsessed with the Florida Lottery, charting the winning numbers each week, trying to determine the probability of every possible combination. Getting bitten by a virus-carrying mosquito seemed like the ultimate bad luck, the worst possible lottery ticket. The odds seemed about as good as finding a razor blade or poison in your candy, the other threat of my childhood Halloweens. The effect of encephalitis, inflammation of the brain, reminded me of zombies. And the fact that it happened after dark made the whole thing feel like a low-budget slasher movie.

Some parents worried it wasn't safe to trick-or-treat. Some of the lawmakers in our South Florida town were talking about canceling it altogether. This floored me. That some invisible power could decide to cancel a sacred holiday like Halloween, just wipe it off the calendar. It was like the invisible power who decided when daylight savings time started. Who said we had to turn our clocks back? It filled me with adolescent indignity.

My friends Miranda and Samantha trick-or-treated early in the day. The old folks in their neighborhood were confused by the children in costumes ringing their doorbells at 3:00 in the afternoon. They hadn't approved this change, either.

Me, I wasn't allowed to go. My parents, and half the parents in Palm Beach County, had the same idea. The mall had announced that store employees would be handing out candy. My mom said she'd take me.

I had a stomachache that evening. "Maybe you should stay home," my mother advised over dinner. I sat at the avocado-green kitchen counter and stared into my bowl of Campbell's vegetable soup. Just looking at the bowl made me feel queasy. But I made myself eat it, spoonful by spoonful. Maybe Miranda and Samantha wouldn't be there, and maybe I was almost too old for trick-or-treating—my two teenage brothers had aged out—but I wasn't going to miss it. It was just excitement, I told my mother, Halloween nerves. For my costume, I'd borrowed a set of real doctor's scrubs from a family I baby-sat for. After dinner, I donned my paper surgeon's mask, and my mother drove me to the mall.

This was no ordinary mall. In the early '90s, the Gardens Mall was brand new, a palace, the peachy pink of the inside of a conch shell, the Muzak piped from heavenly speakers. It smelled like Mrs. Field's cookies and Elizabeth Arden perfume. It had a fashion show stage, fountains glittering with pennies, and a glass elevator that ascended to the second floor with the whispery grace of a spaceship. It had a post office. It might even have had its own zip code. It had a long bank of pay phones where Miranda, Samantha, and I would call our parents to pick us up. On that Halloween, as my mom and I entered the glass-ceilinged food court, the mall was busier than I'd ever seen it. The teeming mass would be a recipe for a coronavirus disaster, but thirty years ago, it was the safest place for us, indoors. Through the glass ceiling above us, the sky was darkening. Inside, the kids were dressed as Bart Simpson and Ariel and Pee-wee Herman and more than one homemade mosquito. The insect had captured our state's imagination, but it would not stop our fun.

Of course, another, deadlier virus held our attention in those years. Ryan White, the hemophiliac teenager who had been kicked out of his Indiana school for being HIV-positive, had died of AIDS a few months before. My uncle was dying of it in San Francisco, but I didn't tell anyone. In the sixth grade, "You have AIDS" was the sharpest cut-down possible, aside from "You're gay." We gave ourselves cootie shots. We were obsessed with contagion. Catchability. Bad luck. Sickness was a social curse, but also it was tied up in sex. To be sick was to be gross, but also to be adult. Chosen. Special. It was the year that Samantha caught mono, another virus, which meant you kissed boys, which meant you were popular. Maybe that was why I was confused, why I courted the dangerous intensity of mosquitoes, and also feared it, and also felt helpless against it, a phenomenon with a cleverness beyond my understanding. I wanted to be sick, but in the right way. The way that meant you were noticed. Miranda and Samantha, they were starting to be noticed. I could see boys' antennae lifting in their presence. Samantha got her first hickey, like a vampire's kiss, and hid it under the turtleneck of her bodysuit. I wanted to be kissed, and I wanted to be stricken.

That month, October 1990, "Beverly Hills, 90210" premiered. I fell in love with the show like I'd been waiting for it all my life. I fell in love with Dylan McKay. It wasn't lost on me that the character I most resembled was Andrea Zuckerman. The bookworm with the glasses, reliable best friend to all the pretty girls. The next year, in seventh grade, my mother would drive me and Miranda and Samantha to another South Florida mall to see Luke Perry, and thousands of girls would rush the stage and dozens of them would end up in the hospital, where he visited them. How I envied those girls!

Another day in seventh grade I was walking around the Gardens Mall alone, and a young woman with a clipboard approached me. She called me "cute." I was wearing very short shorts—we called them coochie cutters—and an oversized Stussy T-shirt. Did I want to try modeling? Samantha modeled outside of some stores at the mall, still as a mannequin, wearing a long strawberry blonde wig with bangs. "Sure," I told the girl, and took a pamphlet, my pubescent heart beating. A few days later I begged my mother to drive me to the modeling agency in West Palm Beach. The moment I walked in, the woman in charge took one look at me and told us all the modeling spots were taken. My mother, enraged, marched out, leaving me sitting in the office. Eventually I sniffled my way back to our minivan, where I silently cried under a "Betty & Veronica" comic all the way home. Maybe it wasn't just the modeling agent, with her narrow definition of mall-model beauty, that enraged her. Maybe my mom was just having a bad year, and was tired of driving me around. Her little brother, after all, had just died of AIDS. When my mom told me he'd died, Samantha was there with me. My mom pointed to a picture hanging over her desk of my uncle and his lover. "Gross," Samantha said. I stood there, stung. I couldn't think of a thing to say back, though I've thought of a few things since.   

That day at the mall with Miranda and Samantha, trying to get a glimpse of Luke Perry, was so jam-packed we were separated from my mom, other girls' scrunchies in my face, their hip packs in my back. The two days are merged in my mind. Halloween was a psychedelic version of the Luke Perry day. I stood feverish in the middle of the food court, again separated from my mother, watching the menacing swarm of ghouls and goblins swinging their pillow cases of treats. The sweat beaded on my lip, on my forehead, the back of my neck. It collected on the inside of my paper mask, like the icy paper cups I'd get from Sbarro. I suddenly felt like I was suffocating.

After I met the man who would become my husband, he would tell me, and later our children, all kinds of stories that took place in the Gardens Mall. He had once been kicked out by a pink-shirted security guard for pretending with some friends that he was a news reporter, interviewing passersby with a video camera. He had once, he claimed, been chased through the mall by a group of girls who was convinced he was Luke Perry. He had to duck behind the counter at the Sock Market, where a girl he knew worked.

Perhaps it seems unlikely that I, Andrea Zuckerman's little sister, mall-model reject, was in the mall at the same time as my future husband, Luke Perry's teenaged sideburned lookalike, that Halloween. But if my dad, the lottery statistician, were to study the odds, he would agree they were in our favor. As a young man, my future husband worked at approximately half its stores. He was handing out candy at Spectrum Music that night. Perhaps he was on his dinner break, buying a slice of pizza from Sbarro, when he saw the crowd rippling outward from the middle of the food court. I stood in the middle of that ripple, watching the costumed creatures scattering away from me at the same rate that the volcano of vegetable soup erupted from my mouth, into the warm cup of my surgeon's mask—was this really convenient, I wondered, or really inconvenient?—and down the front of my scrubs. My mother skittered to my side, stood with a hand on my back while I finished barfing. Then she disappeared to find a janitor. Some good citizens brought me some napkins. My future husband claims he was one of them.

"We didn't even go to one store," I moaned on the way home. My pillow case was empty. In the back of our minivan, I stripped out of my scrubs and sat in my underwear and training bra, my seat cranked all the way back, looking out the at the cruel and perilous dark. The mosquitoes had tried to take away Halloween. But in the end it was a stomach virus, vile and common, that had succeeded. I had been singled out, but in the most humiliating possible way.

Later, of course, I could laugh about it, telling our kids about the romantic time their dad and I first crossed paths. It would take us another seven years to meet and fall in love. And yet I gained something more than an origin story, something more than a punch line. I was stricken that year, we all were, by the feeling that we were touched by something bigger than ourselves, some force beyond our prediction or control. We were gripped by a deeper-than-Halloween fear, and also by a sense of that-year-ness, of witnessing an anomaly. I'd wanted to think the virus out there had something to do with me and my teeny-bopper troubles, but in the end, it made a mockery out of me. It brought me down to size.

This year, I expected my kids to be disappointed that the coronavirus will cancel their Halloween plans. Maybe some kids will be. Maybe some of my kids' friends will find creative ways to trick-or-treat, and their parents will let them. They'll stay six feet apart. Their neighbors will agree to leave individually wrapped candies on a cookie sheet on the porch. But my kids haven't even asked if they can go trick-or-treating. They proposed they dress up and eat candy at home. Maybe we'll hide it around the house, like Easter eggs. Maybe we'll post pictures on Instagram. Maybe they'll FaceTime with their friends. They've long ago adapted to lockdown life. They've already been living in a reality stranger and scarier than any slasher movie. They've been wearing masks for seven months.

When they look back, maybe they'll remember 2020 as the year Halloween was canceled. But they'll also remember it as the year the Easter egg hunt was canceled, that Fourth of July fireworks were canceled, that we didn't have any friends over for Thanksgiving. They'll remember Zoom birthday parties and Houseparty play dates. They'll remember hearing about the California fires on the news. They'll remember skipping virtual school to go to the George Floyd vigil. They'll remember staying up late to watch the presidential debates. They'll remember staying up late every night, let's be honest, since March, when time ceased to matter to them. For others, of course, time matters more than ever. How long is nine minutes when you're at the mercy of the police? How long is a quarantine when you're on a ventilator? How long does justice take? How long before the fire's on your doorstep? When will this end? The timelessness my kids live inside, two white boys in the safe and sheltered suburbs, is a privilege, but even from their bubble, they are seeing their world change.

When I was a kid, time seemed to belong to me alone. I could make it, and everything, about myself. I could give it a metaphoric significance. But for months now, time hasn't belonged to my children anymore. They are members of a planet reeling from more than one disease. For my generation—at least for this middle-class white girl in Florida—it was the plague and prejudice of AIDS. For my kids, it's political division and police violence and economic collapse and environmental destruction and a virus that's not going anywhere soon. Much of it was there before, of course, present in the background of my youth, but now it's posted to YouTube, the country where my children live. They don't need to be reminded that there's something more important than Halloween. For better or for worse, 2020 has shown them both that they are small, and that they belong to a bigger story. They know they are living through history.

I don't remember when the brief curfew of my childhood ended. Not long after Halloween, the risk of infection dropped, when mosquitoes disappeared for the winter. Some invisible hand—the governor? the mayor? our parents?—lifted the order. I imagine all of us children emerging from our houses, blinking in the twilight. Then we went back to playing kickball until dark.

I imagine what that moment will look like for my own kids, when the grownups will inoculate them against as much as we can and tell them the world can go back to normal. Maybe by next Halloween, they'll be running carelessly through the neighborhood, neon bracelets glowing in the night. Will the world look the same? Will they?



By Eleanor Henderson

Eleanor Henderson is the Chair of the Department of Writing at Ithaca College and the author of the novels "Ten Thousand Saints" and "The Twelve-Mile Straight." Her memoir "Everything I Have Is Yours" will be published next summer.

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