Baltimore writer Jen Grow says she has made some of her scariest fashion faux pas on Halloween night.
Dracula is standing on my neighbors’ front porch. He’s been there for the last few weeks staring past their Ravens flag, past their excitable Jack Russell terriers, past their chain link fence to some spot across the street. I imagine it’s the same spot where my dog stares, ever hopeful, waiting to catch a glimpse of the feral cats that live in a tool shed with a man named Danny behind my other neighbor’s house.
Or maybe Dracula is not keeping tabs on Danny and the cats at all, but guarding the neighborhood with his very life-sized presence. In that regard, he’s been doing a good job. I jump every time I spot his black cape out of the corner of my eye. I know he’s a mannequin, but Dracula’s creepiness– along with his friends, a pint-sized witch holding a severed head, and a drapey witch hanging from the porch ceiling—is in keeping with the season. It’s that time of year when scariness = fun. My neighbor is an über decorator, so she’s no stranger to clutter and colored lights. At Christmas, her bay window is home to a pair of motorized Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus dolls that rotate their arms and heads in slow, ghostly movements. They, too, stare blankly across the street and creep me out.
Unfortunately, this holiday spirit is on display to only a handful of neighbors since we live on a dead end street that doesn’t see much traffic. We don’t get the scores of trick-or-treaters that used to descend on my old neighborhood in Rodgers Forge. When I say scores, I really mean hundreds. I mean roving packs of zombies and princesses as well as their attendant parents. Living in Rodgers Forge requires absolute surrender to the spirit of Halloween. You either give in or get out. The first few years, my partner, Lee, and I gave in. But at some point, trying to keep the dogs from barking ballistically at the sound of the doorbell a few hundred times in one evening stopped being fun. The last few years, we forgot about candy altogether and made other plans.
I know, I know. I’ve become one of those people. Even though we no longer live in Rodgers Forge, the chances of our house being dark this Halloween are, I’d say, about 50/50. It’s a fact I’m not particularly proud of. I would like to embrace Halloween like my neighbor does. I would like to be that seasonally enthusiastic. In fact, there’s a part of me that wants to go full tilt this year and dress up, but when I try to dream up a costume, I go blank. I’m gripped by some quirky Halloween inadequacy that consumes me every October. It has happened for decades, now. Any Halloween-related idea that has occurred to me in the previous 11 months disappears in a poof of amnesia. I’m physically and creatively incapable of coming up with a clever costume. Or even a not-so-clever costume. My old pal, procrastination, doesn’t help much either.
Maybe the first time I bumped up against this Halloween quirk happened in the seventh grade when I went to a youth group Halloween dance. I had great expectations of dancing with boy that I had a crush on named Roy or Ray or Steve. But I hadn’t thought it all the way through. My day-dreamy vision of dazzling him didn’t include me wearing my flannel “Little House on the Prairie”-style nightgown and carrying a Raggedy Ann doll. It didn’t matter that I had rouged my cheeks in pink circles, dotted my face with fake freckles, and even tried out a little eye shadow. In the semi-dim lights of the church hall, I realized too late that how I looked was not how I wanted to be seen.
I couldn’t articulate this back then. All I knew for sure was that what little self-esteem I possessed washed away when I bobbed for apples and came up empty and sopping wet, my Pippi Longstocking braids plastered against my head, dripping cold water on my flannel nightie. (The same nightgown that I had planned to sleep in later at a friend’s house.) I vaguely remember crying in a stall in the church bathroom as the result of 13-year-old-girl hormones. At any rate, I did not win the coveted Best Costume award though I’d been praying for some Halloween miracle. At that age, I had wanted to be outstanding in some meaningful and popular way. Instead, I was wet and cold and had to dance with a girl named Becky because none of the boys asked me.
That’s not so bad as far as turning of age stories go, but still. I’m guessing that was the start of my Halloween inadequacy, since my best idea for a costume involved wearing my pajamas.
The next time I dressed up for Halloween was after college. I wore a crazy gold turban that had belonged to my grandmother, some white go-go boots, long white cocktail gloves that I had inherited from my great-grandmother, and a leopard print, bell-bottomed jumpsuit that I cherished and wore frequently. I had no idea who or what I was supposed to be. That was true for Halloween and for my life. In my early 20s I was still experimenting with identity. Still wanting to be seen. That night, I was a collection of my favorite accessories. But when people asked me about my costume, I didn’t have an answer. In truth, I was wearing variations of myself, pulling those different selves together in an uninhibited way. That’s a strength, I now realize, but not a Halloween costume.
Fast forward 15 years. I was in my late 30s. A friend invited me to an outdoor Halloween block party. Once again, I relied on my own creativity to come up with a last minute costume. I rummaged through my closet and found a purple crushed velvet jacket and a felt hat. I wanted to accessorize with a feather boa, but all I had were feathered cat toys attached to long wands. In a stroke of genius, I decided to tuck the wands inside my jacket so a mass of feathers would surround my neck and face in a Cruella Deville sort of way. These are the kinds of brainstorms that seem like a good idea in the privacy of my own home. It will be dark and no one will notice, I told myself. Also, I look great!
Once I was in the company of other people, I realized the extent of my absurdity. “Are those cat toys you’re wearing?” someone asked. “Yes,” I said, without explanation. (Because, really, what is there to explain?)
Despite my costume blunders, or maybe because of them, I’m completely impressed and inspired by other people’s costumes. I should take notes! I tell myself whenever I’m confronted with Halloween greatness. Everyone is having so much fun, why wouldn’t I dress up? In fact, I regret not dressing up every time. (Except when I do dress up, and then I regret that.) So I make my annual vow: Next year will be different.
Yet, here it is, another October, and I can almost feel myself accidentally-on-purpose forgetting to buy candy for the trick-or-treaters. My Halloween anxiety is creeping back. But Dracula is on my neighbor’s porch, staring me down, reminding me that there’s still time to change…into a costume.
Jen Grow is the Fiction Editor of Little Patuxent Review. She’s received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council. Her story collection, O.K., Goodbye, was shortlisted for the St. Lawrence Book Award and the Spokane Prize. Her work has earned nominations for Best New American Voices and a Pushcart Prize. Her collection, My Life as a Mermaid and Other Stories, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books in 2015.