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From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!

--Cornish prayer

My key twisted in the door and I leaned on the handle. Enough time had passed since I said goodbye to my girls to cease any expectation of being greeted by their mews and swishy tails. Dad was at work, but we'd be having dinner soon, and I decided to get there early enough to sift through my mail. On the phone, he'd said he had a surprise for me, so on the drive over I daydreamed possibilities -- a new book? Did he rearrange the furniture or finally place some art on the walls? Curious and excited, I opened the door, only to be greeted by what appeared to be a small person with a skull for a face and long, ratty gray hair. Startled and freaked out, I jumped back and screamed.

Was this the surprise? A heart palpitation? Daring to step closer and peer in once again, I gazed upon the hideous creature, but this time I could see it for what it was -- the vacuum, wearing a T-shirt and a rubber mask. I grimaced as I pushed it out of my way (knowing its true identity did not diminish its creepy presence), and grabbed the phone to dial Dad's office.

Before he could finish his "Hello," I tersely said, "That was not funny!" My father's answering giggle cracked my indignant shell.

"I've been waiting all day for that," he said. Then, as if to assuage his guilt, he added, "Didn't you think it was funny? Just a little?"

"Yeah, Dad, it was a good one. You got me." He was clearly satisfied with his scare conquest; frightening people never gets old for Dad. Last night, he waited outside of the elevator for a neighbor, her husband, and their young daughter. When the door opened on the fourth floor, he leapt forward and yelled, "BOO!" Mother and daughter cringed and shuddered, while the man with them laughed at my father's antics.

Each of my sisters can remember at least one incident in which Dad would hide in a closet or a crevice for up to two hours. Sometimes he'd sit with a prop, like a gorilla glove, to increase his "scare-ability." My mother was always the best reactor, with dramatic, bloodcurdling screams and long "come down" periods, during which she'd say things like, "I can't believe you, Cliff! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" We never knew when he'd strike. In recent years, though, Dad's little surprises tend to happen only around Halloween.

My family has always been enthusiastic about holidays, from the consumer craze of Christmas to the pranks played on April Fools' Day. All Hallow's Eve was especially fun, for the obvious reason (hint: free candy; we didn't have bags, we had pillowcases). Ours was a stay-at-home mom for most of our youth, and in addition to her yearlong cross-stitch and craft endeavors, come October she would focus her creative talents on our costumes. For a handful of Halloweens, her daughters were "punk rockers," with Reynolds Wrap--assisted hairdos and blue eye shadow.

When I was in junior high, Mom expanded her costume horizon. One year, she painted a spider web across my face, with a black widow crouched on one cheek; the next, I was a lioness, and she helped me transform with various shades of orange and gold. Jenny was a Hershey's Kiss and then a piglet. I have pictures of us, striking our poses, proud of our assiduous attempts to become our costumes. Drama (I mean "acting") runs in my family.

But one Halloween getup remains paramount: better than Medusa, much more clever than a Renaissance courtesan. It was the year I dressed as if I were part of the Disney Electrical Lights Parade gone vamp. It just doesn't get any more fabulous than that. I couldn't have done it myself; my friend Gino not only came up with the idea, but he also made the costumes. I was wired with lights sewn throughout the layers of my black taffeta skirt, pointing out from my nipples through my black bustier, weaved in the beehive of hair on my head. Battery packs were stashed all over my body, and each little white light blinked in sync with the others. Gino's top hat was also lined with the miniature bulbs, as were his vest and knickers. We traipsed the streets downtown, mechanically waiving our arms, gracefully accepting accolades from other revelers.

In recent years, however, I've been copping out when it comes to dressing up. The stress of finding the right costume can be overwhelming (for an arbitrary perfectionist), and it became too easy to find something to wear that was already in my closet. Hence the redundancy of my dominatrix outfit. Three years ago, I went to work with a low-cut shirt and a little silver whip. The following year, I took it up a notch with the addition of a silver mask to my office costume. That evening, I donned a full ensemble -- complete with a slave in a black leather straitjacket -- to an event at the Honey Bee Hive.

A corset here, a riding crop there, a boa -- I mean, my friends see me like this throughout the year, so what's the big deal on Halloween? Though I love seeing what other people come up with, I've stopped trying altogether. I know, party pooper. But it's so much easier this way. This year, as with the last, I attended "costume-optional" soirées: A potluck in South Park, then a party in Kensington.

The hostesses (and hosts) of these events have more than enough enthusiasm for the 31st to cover those, like me, who show up to see but have nothing to show. At the potluck, each food is renamed something spooky -- it's not spinach dip, it's goblin's blood. The dishes are tasty (especially Christy's specialty, a rice casserole baked inside of a pumpkin), and the people are -- well, they're my friends, so the fabulous, fantastic, and spectacular are assumed.

After the potluck Saturday night, I followed a foggy mist to the location of the second party, a townhouse in my neighborhood. Once inside, I could see that my friend Heather and her cohorts had transformed the garage into a dungeon, set up a DJ booth in the corner of the living room, and prepared Jell-O shooters in the kitchen. You don't need to be wearing a witch hat to appreciate that (though I have one, just in case).

Every weekend offers an opportunity for me to dress sexy, wacky, or wild, so I've taken the October holiday back to basics. Used to be, I'd have to be someone else to get candy. Now all I have to do is hang around and mooch from friends and family who have embraced the spirit of the season by giving out cavities and calories free of charge. I have enough candy to last me a few months. But I must don my blood-red feather hat, my four-inch heeled black leather boots, my silver-studded corset (subdued by a sheer black blouse), and a spiky collar (effective for warding off vampiric assaults). October may be over, but the cashiers at my local Vons are used to seeing me this way.

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