I’ve never been much of a Halloween guy. It’s probably because the street I grew up on wasn’t very conducive to trick or treating. There aren’t sidewalks, and the houses are pretty far apart, so it would’ve taken four hours to get down the street on my little legs.
So each year, my mom would load my brother and me in the backseat and drive us to the neighbors’ houses. She’d hit five or six before getting bored, and we’d come back with a couple candy bars.
It wasn’t until much later I discovered the magic of trick or treating in a development, but by then I had outgrown it. My parents impressed on me pretty early that if I was old enough to buy my own candy, I was too old to trick or treat.
The other reason I’m ambivalent about Halloween is that I don’t scare very easily. I guess I like horror movies, but I get too wrapped up in literary elements and plot development to enjoy the thrill of fear.
My wife, on the other hand, is what you’d call easily spooked.
In marrying Melinda, I have implicitly accepted the fact that whenever I enter a room she’s occupying, she’s probably going to scream in surprise.
It’s not a my husband is home from his tour of duty kind ofscream, and it’s not an aww, you guys threw me a surprise party kind of scream. No, Melinda shrieks like a virgin in a Wes Craven film.
I’m not going to lie, it’s kind of annoying, mostly because it doesn’t only happen when she thinks she’s alone in the house and is startled by my unexpected presence at the bedroom door. It happens all. The. Time.
We’ll be in the middle of a conversation, I’ll go to the kitchen to get a beer, and when I return 30 seconds later, she’ll scream.
“I don’t understand,” I’ll say. “You know I’m here. You knew I was coming back to finish our conversation. Why are you so surprised?”
And yet, it’s endearing, in the same way she thinks it’s cute when I respond “nothing” every time she asks me what she should wear.
Unfortunately, my analytical brain has taken all the fun out of being scared.
Over time, I’ve learned to identify and rationalize almost every thing that goes bump in the night, a skill I assume comes with being an adult and having to play the macho man of the house role I secretly adore.
The only instance I recall being remotely freaked out was one winter night around 2:30 when Melinda and I were awoken by what sounded like a young girl screaming under our bedroom window.
I gathered my courage and tiptoed out on the lawn to see the source of the noise. Not wanting to get into something I couldn’t get out of, I brought my shotgun with me, though in hindsight, I probably did it because it felt like something a dad in a movie would do — go to check the perimeter in his boxers and a 12 gauge pump.
I ran my flashlight along the foundation and caught the shining eyes of two animals. They were foxes, frozen by the flashlight in a compromising position that suggested I was the one interrupting them and not the other way around. I had never heard a fox scream before, but internet research the next day confirmed the little girl’s scream I’d heard was indeed the fox’s call for sexy time. Now, when we hear it, Melinda raises her eyebrows seductively, and I’ll respond: “foxy.”
I’m pretty rational now, but I did not always have this manly super power. In fact, I was pretty skittish growing up. I slept with a night light for longer than appropriate and spent more than a few nights sneaking down the hall to curl up next to my mom.
I would have super-vivid dreams about giants coming to get me that would leave me screaming and shaking. I’d wake up and still be able to see them, their giant feet coming down on top of me.
It could have been due to an over-active imagination, or the fact my parents let me read Stephen King novels starting in the sixth grade. But if I had to attribute my childhood terrors to one thing, it would be the fucking mannequin.
I think every kid with a basement goes through a stage where he’s terrified of it. I remember watching Home Alone for the first time when I was 6 or 7 and thinking Kevin MacAllister gets me. The only difference between Kevin and me was that by the end of Act II, Kevin has conquered his fear of the basement. My fear lasted the better part of a decade.
On the whole, my basement wasn’t really that creepy. It was finished and had couches and a TV in it, and my brother and I spent a lot of time playing down there.
But what set our basement apart from every other basement on the block was the mannequin that stood in the corner.
Oh yeah, it was a full-body mannequin, and it stood all of six feet tall. I’m sure my dad found it in a Dumpster or bought it at a thrift store and thought it was funny, and he dressed it in a full combat outfit. The dummy wore camouflage BDUs, boots, an ammo belt, a helmet, and, scariest of all, a black gas mask.
Have you ever seen a soldier wearing a gas mask? There’s something really unsettling about it. It could be broad daylight, 4th of July, not a cloud in the sky. You see a dude wearing a gas mask and it’s going to creep you the fuck out.
Look at these photos. Then imagine yourself at eight years old, being asked to go down into the darkened bowels of the basement to fetch a can of green beans, knowing THAT is waiting for you at the bottom?
“The hell is the matter with you?” my dad would say when I’d freeze at the top of the steps. “Your mother said she needs a box of spaghetti.” He’d shame me until I gathered enough courage, and then I’d start my trek down.
I’d fumble for the light switch and then stop on the bottom step and stare at the mannequin, making sure it was still frozen. Usually I’d feel confident enough he wasn’t coming after me to get what my mom had asked for, but sometimes I swore that goddamn thing’s arm moved or his foot twitched. Those were the nights I’d haul ass upstairs and tell my mom we were all out of tomato soup.
My bedroom shared a wall with the stairwell to the basement, and some nights, I’d hear the mannequin on the steps. His bootfalls were heavy and ominous, and I knew he was coming right for me.
Now, I don’t know how your parents felt about you coming into their room after lights out, but in my house, if you were going to cross the threshold of the master bedroom, you’d better have a fucking arterial bleed. My mom was willing to tolerate some late-night babble about gas-masked mannequins, but my father had none of it. He was working as a union ironworker at the time, and his sleep was precious. If he didn’t get a good night of shut-eye, there was a potential he could get to work in the morning and, you know, fall off a skyscraper.
It only took a couple of interrupted REM cycles for him to get creative.
“Listen,” he said, coming into my bedroom one night. “The next time you’re in bed and someone comes to get you, I want you to use this.” He handed me a bayonet, a foot-long knife designed to affix on the end of a rifle.
That bayonet was one of the most effective parenting tools ever concocted. Every time I had a bad dream or was sent downstairs for a dinner ingredient, it protected me. Sure, my dad had duct taped the scabbard shut so I couldn’t actually use it, but that was beside the point. For all intents and purposes, I had an advantage over my mannequin foe.
Eventually, my dad dismantled the mannequin and swapped its helmet and gas mask for a gray wig and pointy hat. He stuck a broom between its legs and ran it up a crane boom, where it hovered over a job site for Halloween. That is, until a concerned citizen called the police, thinking it was a real person trying to fly.
I, too, got past my hangups about the creepiness of our basement. Now, as the patriarch, I scoff at any noises in the night — screaming foxes aside.
A few weeks ago, though, J came into our bedroom in the middle of the night. She was panicked and sweating, telling Melinda and me there was a monster in her room.
Melinda invited J curl up next to her in our bed, but I had a better idea.
I duct taped a bayonet to its scabbard and handed it to her, telling her if any monsters came to get her, she should use it. The girl slept like a champ the rest of the night.
“That was really sweet,” Melinda said. “Good job, honey.”
“If only I could give one to you for when I enter a room,” I said.