Military families have been hitting civilian department stores and base exchanges in search of the perfect Halloween costumes for next week’s trick-or-treating. I am always amazed at the unbelievable selection of reasonably priced costumes for kids and adults nowadays. Anything from Attila the Hun to Sexy Mr. Rogers, and everything in between. Today, there is no excuse for not having a decent costume on Oct. 31.
However, it wasn’t always so easy.
When I was a kid, well-made costumes were a privilege of the well-to-do, being quite pricey and hard to find. In our middle-class neighborhood, fancy costumes were out of the question for most of the kids we knew. This left us with two options: the boxed costume sets easily found at local department stores, or … the dreaded homemade costume.
While quite affordable, the boxed costume sets of my childhood were of the lowest quality imaginable. Each came with a mask and a sheath that tied in the back. The sheath “costume” was nothing more than a 100% polyester, paper-thin, hospital gown, printed on the front to poorly resemble Bugs Bunny, Sleeping Beauty or Fred Flintstone.
Not only did the kids wearing these costumes look nothing like the characters they longed to portray, they couldn’t go near open flames lest they catch fire and melt into puddles of synthetic goo.
The masks had two round holes to see through and a tiny slit at the mouth not quite big enough to allow breath to fully escape, making it a steamy, uncomfortable affair. Made of eggshell-thin plastic, the masks cracked with the slightest pressure, and the thin elastic band that went around the head had a working life of about 20 minutes.
Wearing one of these masks was like shooting craps. While trick-or-treating, you might gingerly lift the mask up to take a bite of your Charleston Chew, and SNAP — the elastic breaks, the plastic cracks and you’re left with no disguise on Halloween night.
I never got to wear a boxed costume. My first-grade-teacher-mother refused to buy them because, according to her, “They require no creativity.” Instead, we were set adrift to create our own homemade costumes from what we could find around the house. For kids of our “Charlie Brown Generation,” a white sheet with two holes cut in it would do the trick. Unfortunately, all of our sheets had daisies or model T’s printed on them.
So, for a few years, I used my grandmother’s grey wig as the basis for disguising myself as “an old lady.” I added a crocheted shawl (not hard to find in the ‘70s) and little glasses I fashioned from pipe cleaners. Voila! I looked just like Aunt Bea wearing Converse tennis shoes. Other Halloweens, I was politically incorrect before anyone worried about political correctness, dressing as a “hobo” or an “Indian” squaw.
With his paper route money, my brother ordered a Creature of the Black Lagoon mask from an ad in the back of Mad Magazine, which he simply wore with jeans and a sweatshirt. Despite the human clothing accompanying his mask, my brother’s get up terrified me, because I had recently seen the movie. My brother and I watched “Chiller Theater” double-features every Saturday night after “The Carol Burnett Show.” One Saturday, we saw “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) followed by “The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism” (1967). Or was it “The Man Who Reclaimed His Head” (1934)? Either way, my life was never the same.
Those old horror movies definitely added “fear factor” to my Halloween experience. My rational side knew the ghouls and zombies in the street were just my brother and his mischievous friends, but my instincts told me that they could very well drag me off to a laboratory to be dismembered.
In the end, it didn’t matter whether the costumes were boxed or homemade, trick-or-treating back then was less about the costumes and more about being scary. Or, if you were like me, being scared. And like the Chuckles, Necco Wafers and popcorn balls on Halloween night, there were plenty of each to go around.
Lisa Smith Molinari is an award-winning syndicated columnist, author, blogger and speaker, as well as the wife of a Navy retiree.