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Personal Essays

Keeping Up With the Corpses

When her friend moves into a house whose Halloween block party draws swarms of trick-or-treaters from all over LA, our writer visits, entering a dimension where the candy corn is organic and the ghosts have SAG cards.

Before my friend and her husband had even closed escrow, the neighbors on her new block in a tony L.A. suburb made it a point to brief her on how they decorated for Halloween. With young children, it was a holiday they were used to taking seriously, but the sheer number of neighbors who stopped by to tell her about it as she stood outside her new home with the real estate agent was a sign that this would be different. This street claimed Halloween as its own—it wouldn’t be outshined by the nearby block that had fake snow brought in at Christmas. People go all out, the neighbors warned. The police came to make sure only the right people got in. One particularly aggressive woman asked if my friend had started planning her decorations yet. “Well, just a little,” my friend bluffed, shielding her eyes from the hot August sun.

I did a certain amount of eye-rolling when she relayed these conversations to me. Elaborate Halloweens are part of my make-up. As the only child of two professional actors, I was used to thinking of Halloween in pageant-like terms. When I was growing up, the preparation for my costume began in early September and was completed just moments before showtime. My parents approached Halloween like Edith Head, looking after every detail, down to the bag I carried to collect my treats. Once I had picked out my character—Wonder Woman, Annie, Raggedy Ann—they began scrutinizing pictures in books, making rough sketches of possible costumes, and collecting swatches of potential fabrics.

When the big day finally did arrive and the curtain went up, it was clearly important to both of my parents that I show a little gratitude—in the form of some acting. When, at age six, I stood casually in our kitchen with my hands at my sides, wearing a big smile to have my picture taken as Peter Pan, my mother put down the camera and looked at me as though I was as out of my league as a stripper auditioning for The Cherry Orchard. “Now come on, Courtney! Would Peter Pan just stand there? How would Peter Pan pose?” Neither parent could tolerate a child who had the nerve to inhabit the costume, yet not the character.

 

So when I turned onto my friend’s street on the following Halloween, I showed up hard to impress. That is, until I was stopped by a police officer and asked to give my name and show ID. The normally tranquil block looked more like the parking lot of a sports stadium before a Marilyn Manson concert. There looked to be thousands of screaming kids, a substantial majority of whom seemed well past the dress-up age.

Navigating the walk from my friend’s driveway into her house was like trying to safely float through a mosh pit. In front of her door were at least 60 children, all with bags outstretched and a palpable sense of entitlement. Inside, my friend was frantic. “Do you BELIEVE this?” she said, holding her two-year-old in one arm and doling out candy with the other. “We started out with 15 bags of candy and I’m down to this!” She pointed to four Bit o’ Honeys in the bottom of a plastic pumpkin bowl.

The line for candy got so long that Mia Farrow’s image was being projected on children’s costumes, the Dakota distorted by fairy wings and pirate hats.

In an effort to combine an informal housewarming with their traditional Halloween festivities, they found themselves hosts to well over 30 people, of whom at least 20 were children. With my friend frantically trying to squeeze her growing toddler into last year’s giraffe outfit and her husband off to the supermarket to get more candy, I answered the door to find four pre-teen girls dressed as tramps. Not traditional Halloween hobo tramps—enterprising tramps. In truth, they were dressed as nurses, angels, and French maids, but the collective effect of their low-cut get-ups was shockingly vulgar and as I dropped the last of the candy in their purses (yes, purses—not pumpkins or bags—purses) I thought of the comparatively demure Laverne De Fazio costume I had worn at about the same age.

At this point, many of the children at the party were growing anxious to go trick-or-treating, and began making threats about leaving with or without chaperones. An elaborate door-answering schedule was quickly thrown together among the adults; having just finished attending to the Slut Patrol, I was absolved of duty.

With all her children’s friends and their respective parents collected, we headed out a side door to avoid the crowd that had formed. The first house we went to was almost totally obscured by fog and I didn’t realize until we were closer that the fog was being pumped in an industrial-size fog machine—the kind Cirque du Soleil might use. On the other side of the curtain of fog was a Père Lachaise-worthy graveyard so elaborate that my first thought was, “How could anyone live with graves in their backyard?” Not until a mechanical skeleton shot up from an open grave did I remember it was for show. I wasn’t the only one: All of us, men, women, and children, emitted a collective, blood-letting scream, and instead of approaching the house for candy, we turned tail and ran to another house.

 

After making candy stops at a couple of the neighbors’, we were walking down the street when I heard someone in a loud, frantic voice scream: “MOTHER! MOTHER!!!” I turned around, and saw that somebody was showing Psycho on a 15-foot-tall portable movie screen in their front yard. A few minutes later, it was drowned out by their neighbors, who were showing a double feature of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. A crowd headed over to watch, and the line for candy got so long that Mia Farrow’s image was being projected on children’s costumes, the Dakota distorted by fairy wings and pirate hats.

The next house had not a single decoration, but at the opening of the circular driveway stood a friendly-looking man flanked by two women in white uniforms, all of whom stood smiling in front of a large table with some sort of display. Every light in the palatial home was off, and from the way they stood blocking access to it, it was clear their friendliness doubled as a warning not to come any closer. From the neatness and formality of their collective stance, I thought perhaps they weren’t hawking candy, but rather an opportunity to invest in a timeshare. As we approached, I saw that the nurses were really maids (dressed in their real uniforms, not costumes) and that the table in front of the man was stacked neatly with candy. Not miniature candy, but whole candy bars and full-sized bags of potato chips. Then he recited a clearly memorized, Willy-Wonka-like monologue inviting us to take whatever we wanted, ending with a quick plug of his upcoming television special. As soon as he finished his speech, it was clear that we were meant to move on. The only thing scary about it was that it was the first of five such displays we would see that night, hosted by other, similarly famous neighbors.

 

After two hours of trick-or-treating and gawking, we started back to my friend’s house, which was still under bombardment by now-angry candy seekers, disgusted with the family’s lack of participation, and storming the house like the cast of Les Mis. (My friend would later discover that the previous owners were the veritable Shuberts of the Halloween circuit, and their house was traditionally the most anticipated of the block.) As we headed into the house, the angry throngs seemed to stop just short of hurling epithets in our direction.

That night, my friend started planning for next year’s Halloween. By the following week she had practically eclipsed in scope the blueprints for the renovation of their new home. I rarely speak to her in October—she’s usually mired in meetings about acrylic ghosts versus tulle ones, the wisdom of ordering plaster headstones instead of the concrete kind, and the efficacy of the walking dead. The last time we spoke she was using phrases like “ergonomic possibilities” and “it can take you up to 5 Gs.” I would try to re-establish communication, but I am just too scared.

Native New Yorker Courtney Lichterman lives in Los Angeles, although this is a decision she reconsiders every time another friend starts hanging pictures six inches from the ground in an effort to comply with the directive of a $200-an-hour Feng Shui expert. You can email her here.More by Courtney Lichterman