The low Western sun was just beginning to skim the rooftops and draw long streaks through the sidewalks and cul de sacs of our neighborhood, which meant it was time to get ready. The ones in strollers, or being carried by moms and dads, in their little fleece pumpkin costumes not even comprehending the ritual they were unwittingly taking part in, they were already out and about.
I was 13, and the younger of my little crew of friends. Without ever saying it out loud, it was obvious this was to be our last year. Of trick or treating, not of life. We had been doing this routine going on five years now, ever since I moved to town and located the three weirdos who had been doing this together since Kindergarten. By the time I joined the group, we were old enough to be allowed to go out un-chaperoned, and so started our golden years of childhood Halloweens.
The four of us, for once, had a theme going to our costumes. We were slasher villains. Brett was Micheal Myers. Jason was, funny enough, Freddy. Tim got Jason Voorhees. That left me with either Leatherface or Chucky, and I went with Leatherface, though neither costume really moved the needle for me. The Chucky costumes were all lame and seemed too childish for a 13 year old, and I was too young to appreciate the brilliance of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at that time. All four of our costumes required rubber masks, but I was convinced MY costume was the most uncomfortable. I was already starting to regret our theme, on this, our trick or treating swan song.
Going on flawed, hazy memory of the movie I buttoned up my secondhand denim overalls splotched with fake blood, grabbed my toy chainsaw and trusty pillowcase, and started to head out the door. I nearly forgot the mask. That smelly, rubber, sweaty store-bought mask. I wasn’t putting that miserable thing on until the last possible moment. I snatched it up and made my way to Brett’s house.
Brett’s Michael Myers costume was basic enough, the Shatner mask and the blue coveralls, but he had coated his plastic butcher knife with a weirdly sticky film of syrupy blood. It looked pretty good. Tim’s Jason was even more standard, utilizing the exact same plastic knife as Brett, but without the blood. At least his mask didn’t have to cover his entire head. Jason – the real Jason – hadn’t shown up yet.
“Hoffstedter…” (My last name, they insisted on using) “Leatherface doesn’t wear overalls.” Brett informed me.
“Whatever. Nobody’s gonna care.”
The truth is, I did care, and was wounded by the criticism. But I was 13 now. I had to act like I was too old for this trick or treating nonsense, and that we were only doing it for the free candy, with nothing better to do with our evenings. Our themed costume quartet betrayed our true feelings: we loved Halloween, and trick or treating, and we weren’t quite ready for it to be over.
We discussed the night’s agenda while we awaited the arrival of our fourth man. That night we’d go farther away from home base than we ever had before, across Kensington Avenue and into that nicer, newer neighborhood, then South across 45th beyond the public swimming pool. Uncharted territory. We would trick or treat until the streets were devoid of life, until our feet screamed and legs wobbled, until our pillow sacks were straining to contain the spoils. And if we returned home in time to catch the Simpsons Halloween special, the night would be complete. That was the plan: to go out with a bang.
The sun was no more than a thin ribbon of bright blue on the horizon – “magic hour”, as a cinematographer would call it – and we were itching to get started, some of us literally, in those stuffy masks. That’s when we saw a figure coming from a distance. We squinted against the failing daylight trying to make out any details.
Our last man approached. Jason – a revelation as Freddy Krueger. Unlike the rest of us, he didn’t resort to any hokey rubber mask – this was a full makeup and prosthetic job, extending all the way down the neck and into the collar of the iconic red and green sweater. The signature bladed glove didn’t look like some plastic toy we’d seen at Party City, it looked like the real deal. Lord knows where he got the thing. Even his non-gloved hand had burn makeup on it. Apart from the big toothy grin on his face, Jason looked like the real – albeit diminutive – Freddy.
“Damn dude, that’s uh…” I struggled to find the words.
“That’s… awesome! Did your parents help you with that?” inquired Tim. Jason claimed to have put it all together himself. Not sure if any of us believed him.
We were ready. Keeping with tradition, we hit up all the houses on our close, familiar streets first. Houses where we recognized the folks who answered the door; who would have recognized us without the masks. Nobody could seem to avoid getting our characters mixed up. I got called Freddy an alarming number of times. Each one of us was called Jason at some point. No one guessed any of us – including me – for Leatherface. I became more self-conscious about my inaccurate costume, but I doubt even one used in the actual movie would have helped any. One drunk guy spent a long, awkward period of time trying to get all our characters right, stumbling, correcting, throwing in movie titles along with the character names, and never quite managed the task.
I’m guessing it was somewhere around 8:00 or 8:30 when we reached the limits of our usual trick or treating territory. The night was in full swing, the roads and sidewalks teeming with fellow TRTers, and the occasional car load of older teenagers leaning out the window and shouting various profanities as they drove by. We had only been at it for a couple hours, but it felt like a marathon session already. No matter. We had committed to making this night an epic one, and even with a fairly impressive haul of candy in each of our hands, we pressed on across great wide Kensington Avenue, into the new subdivision.
The journey paid off immediately. This neighborhood had far more homes with the inviting lights on than our own, as well as more participation in the spirit of Halloween in general. Elaborate yard displays dotted the streets. Plastic Jack O’ Lanterns and skeletons, lights of orange and purple and green, styrofoam tombstones, fog machines, sound effects… this neighborhood was doing it right, and we all reveled in the thrill of our discovery while simultaneously lamenting never going this far in years past. Then we saw it.
At the end of the street…
Strobe lights. Crowds of people.
A garage haunted house.
Could this night get any better? Home haunted houses were the holy grail for trick or treaters, only encountered once or twice during the average trick or treating career, and even if they weren’t particularly professional or well-executed, they presented a thrill and a blast of Halloween spirit far more potent than a sack full of candy could ever conjure. The homeowners had strung up a few plastic tarps to make a crude maze in their carport, inside of which were a couple people in cheesy zombie costumes who would leap out at you, and a chainsaw guy at the end, per international haunted house regulations. We went through it twice in a row.
By this point in the evening, things were clearly beginning to wind down. Trick or treater clusters were becoming fewer and farther between. The air had become noticeably chilly, and the smoke smell of snuffed candles wafted by our noses. Wads of shattered pumpkin flesh littered the pavement. But our fatigue from earlier in the night was long gone, replaced by the adrenaline rush from the garage haunt, and the inescapable feeling that there were still adventures to be had, even as the dwindling activity level told otherwise. Without even an outward verbal discussion, we broke South and made our way past the park with the swimming pool. We were far from home.
* * * * *
After what seemed like an interminable death march, we had all taken off our masks to air out our sweltering heads – except Jason of course, whose Freddy makeup was starting to deteriorate, latex prosthetics peeling off at the corners and grease paint around the eyes and mouth thinning. Finally, we found ourselves a neighborhood. But this one could not have been more different than the last one. Yards unkempt, paint and trim faded and falling apart, old broken down trucks, and the most discouraging aspect: no visible Halloween decorations, and few lit porch lights.
There was but one unspoken, universal rule of trick or treating: Only approach the houses with lights on. This was the simple method each home would use to broadcast whether or not they were Halloween participants. If there were decorations out, all the better.
That rush of energy we had experienced earlier seemed to leave the four of us all in that instant. We’d come so far, created so many good memories of our last run of trick or treating on Halloween, it couldn’t end with this. And there were miles yet to walk to get back home. No way we were catching the Simpsons Halloween special.
We all looked around at one another in turn, searching for solutions none of us seemed to have, and feeling the slow sinking resignation set in, but Brett was having none of it. “Well? What’s the problem? Let’s hit this whole street!”
“Dude,” Tim interjected, “most of these people don’t even have any lights on. This is a waste of time. Let’s just… head back towards home and, I don’t know there’s probably houses we skipped…”
“FUCK THAT!” Brett was incensed. It was obvious right then and there that this night meant even more to him than he let on. “Look, they probably just didn’t get a lot of kids and they gave up early. They’ve probably got shit loads of candy left over. It’ll be fine, let’s go.”
The three of us probably could have voted him down, but we all acquiesced to Brett’s determination. And it was exactly as we feared. Most homes simply ignored our knocks, the dull echo of dogs barking inside the only apparent signs of life. One or two angry voices responded to our desperate calls with aggressive rejections, never opening the door. Things were looking grim. We were all exhausted, fatigued of carrying our heavy bags of candy, depressed and thoroughly prepared to call it a loss and put the button on Halloween ’97. And then we decided to try one more house…
I think it was the condition of it that made this one house stand out to us. It was a bit smaller than many of the other homes on this desperate street, but it was considerably nicer looking. A simple, perfect patch of green manicured grass instead of rocks and dirt overtaken by weeds. The exterior walls of the house were not the least bit shabby and deteriorated as was seemingly the norm here. There were no decorations – not so much as a potted plant – in sight, to say nothing of Halloween décor. In fact I can remember nothing remarkable about this house at all apart from its immaculate condition; it didn’t even have numbers on it. The only thing that stood out was a faint red glow leaking out in a thin stripe beneath the bottom edge of the front door. We didn’t notice it from the street but it was there as we got closer. Surely this had to mean there was something Halloween-y going on right? When else do you see red lights in a residence?
I knocked. No answer.
Brett, his impatience clearly at critical mass, nudged me aside and knocked harder. Again, we could see or hear nothing in reply. Until, just as we were about to turn and walk away, the door slowly creaked open. Indeed, from some unknown origin there was red light glowing inside that house, and framed by that dim light was an impossibly slim woman with long, straight reddish hair. She was older (in retrospect, she was probably only 30/35, but to a bunch of adolescents that was ancient), but beautiful, with hard striking features. She just stood there, considering us like we were space aliens, not saying a word. After an awkward beat or two Tim cheerfully proclaimed “Trick or treat!”
“We don’t get many… children on this street,” she answered in a low, velvety voice, “but I believe we can find something delicious for you. Please come in.” The lady beckoned before turning back into the house, the charms jingling on her gypsy-style flowing dress.
Red flag number one, of course. Stranger danger, and all that. This was turning into a Halloween safety PSA. We looked at one another, debating in mumbles and half-thoughts. There was something very obviously off about this situation, and we all knew it, but we also knew about the promise we’d made to ourselves at the beginning of the night: to have an adventure. We were 13 and 14 years old, after all, not little kids. Plus, the theatrical delivery of the woman’s greeting? Her clothes? This had to be some kind of Halloween act.
Once again, it was Brett who made the decision for us by marching confidently through that front door. We all followed instinctively. And immediately, I noticed the smell. It was incredibly pungent, sharp, and otherwise unidentifiable. Not rancid or rotten, but definitely not pleasant. I assumed it had to be some kind of sage or incense or other such new age nonsense, an opinion validated by the home’s decor. Unlike the spartan exterior, inside was dense with accouterments. Ornately patterned fabrics, candle holders, dangling chains and pendants and metal shapes adorned every single horizontal and vertical surface in sight. Innumerable long skinny candles dripped on shelves and tables.
As we passed through the entry hall and into the main living area, taking in the complexity of the strange environment, we noticed a group of other adults, maybe six or seven, sitting on pillows around what looked like a round coffee table. All were thin and severe-looking, dressed either in black or Bohemian style clothing, with lots of jewelry. They did not seem delighted with our presence. They just stared, saying nothing, looking very much as though the four of us had interrupted them in the middle of an important conversation. The woman who answered the door was nowhere to be found.
So there we stood, four teenage kids, suddenly feeling wholly ridiculous in our slasher villain Halloween costumes in the middle of the world’s most depressing party, the eyes of half a dozen unfriendly strangers burning into us. Jason squeaked out a pathetic “Hey”, and as you can imagine it failed to break the ice.
Mercifully the red woman (as she will henceforth be known), the only one to utter a word to us so far returned from the kitchen with a silver tray and five tiny black goblets.
“We don’t have candy. We have wine.”
Red flag number two.
This was just getting too weird, and the red woman could see the fear and hesitation on our faces. A sly, pitying smile stretched across her thin face.
“It’s Samhain Feis – Hallowe’en – and this is the proper way to celebrate, as the ancient ones did. It’s only a small bit, it won’t harm you.”
I still don’t know why, but we gave in to the reassurance easily. We were 13 and 14, prime age for boys desperately trying to push their way into adulthood, and it was Halloween, the best night to break the rules, but I still remember being very apprehensive about this. Nevertheless, we each took a goblet from the tray, and the red woman took the last one for herself. She raised the black glass in a furtive little toast, we clumsily mimicked the motion, and put the glasses to our lips.
I’ll admit, I chickened out. I’d like to tell you it was because I didn’t trust that the wine was unmolested, that I was suspicious of these strangers in this strange neighborhood, as would have been logical, but the truth is I was simply afraid to drink the alcohol. I didn’t know what effect it would have on me. As if this tiny little two ounce goblet of wine would get me drunk and unable to compose myself. The wine was in my mouth, and it burned, so at the moment it seemed as though nobody was paying attention to me, I spit it back into the goblet and quickly put it down on a side table behind me.
This wise but cowardly decision could very well be the one reason any of us are still alive.
Due to where we were all standing, I was the only one who could have pulled off this sleight of hand. Tim, Jason and Brett coughed, eyes watering, from the burning wine in their throats, and I faked the same reaction in order to dodge suspicion. The burning taste of the wine still lingered on my tongue, so it wasn’t difficult. The red woman wore a pleased expression, and beckoned us over to the circular coffee table around which the rest of her bizarre guests sat.
“Please have a seat,” said the red woman, “we’re just about to get started.”
Jason hesitated. “Um, thanks and everything, but we should… we have to-”
“We’re just about to get started. You wouldn’t want to miss this, I promise.” the red woman interrupted.
Red flag number three. We were now being coerced, and my heart rate doubled. What could these weird people possibly want with a bunch of adolescent trick or treaters? I was on the verge of whispering to Brett a desperate plea to run out of that house, and then I was sitting.
I didn’t know how it happened. In the blink of an eye, the adults sitting around the coffee table were shuffled closer together, and all four of us were sitting cross-legged, staring straight ahead. I have zero memory of deciding to do this. And though my anxiety was nowhere near diminished, I somehow also felt the inescapable urge to remain planted right there. I felt malice and danger all around me, but that spot, on that pillow, by that table felt like the safest possible place. It makes no sense, but that’s what was going through my head.
I also finally got a look at that coffee table, and realized it too was extremely odd. The surface was misshapen and lumpy, dome-like and softly glistening, with strange vertical protrusions. It was a giant multicolored mound of wax from countless candles burned to the stub atop that table, and still more remained lit. The dried wax spilled over the edges all around the circumference of it and hung in broken stalagmites above my bent knees.
Every time I moved my head, my vision blurred and had to catch up to reality. The candle flames made streaks that hung in the air as I turned to my left to look at Jason and Tim and Brett, who were staring dazed, their mouths hanging open slightly. My heart felt like it was pounding through my ribs.
Time jumped forward again, and suddenly the red woman was there, sitting dead across the table from me with her hands raised towards the ceiling, chanting some incomprehensible words that to me sounded like a continuous, unbroken tone, echoing as if from a distance. The voice would get louder then softer, louder then softer, building in rhythm. Then, a shriek. A long, ear-piercing shriek that sounded like four voices combined.
But the red woman was still chanting, faster now, and I could see her chest rising and falling as rapidly as my own. The shriek hadn’t come from her, it came from above…
I lazily let my head fall back on my shoulders to look up, and the ceiling was nothing. Just black. A black that reflected no light from any angle and betrayed no forms. It seemed endless. Until a cluster of thin tendrils, also black, began to drip straight down out of the nothingness, directly over the table. The tendrils resembled long, wet hair, and were followed shortly by the dome of a head. Then one long, clawed humanoid hand, attached to an impossibly long skeletal arm. Another clawed hand, another broom handle arm…
And another arm, and another. Soon, a crude torso started to emerge from the inky blackness for all those terrible arms to branch out from. The entire monstrous form seemed to be dripping slowly from the ceiling. Dripping like black candle wax…
I felt ready to pass out from terror, but still I could not bring my arms or legs to cooperate. I could only watch as the black figure’s domed head floated down ever closer, and began to take on a more defined shape. A giant gaping hole caved in to form a mouth. The neck must have stretched to two feet long. I can remember no sound other than what seemed like white noise, drowning out the red woman’s frantic chanting.
Finally, the black creature halted its descent, its head perhaps three feet above the table, hair grazing the wax surface. It slowly began to rotate, its gaping maw and eyeless face scanning the circle of hypnotized human beings around it.
Time jumped again, and suddenly the creature had two of its skeletal arms extending straight out. The clawed hands were wrapped around the heads of two of the seated strangers as they jerked and twitched, their hands feebly clawing at nothing in front of them. The black monster seemed to be vibrating in a vague blur. After a moment, it removed one hand from the face of the stranger, revealing the total white of eyeballs rolled completely back, and a mouth that was now nothing but a red circle, blood pouring down the chin. The creature immediately latched that arm onto another face, then a third arm to yet another.
Although nothing was really clear for me at this time, I did know that I was going to die. I was frozen in place, unable to even blink as I witnessed an incomprehensible horror consume every living soul in this house. It was all I could think: “I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I’m going to die.”
Then I noticed my knees were trembling… My hands, which before the last time hop rested still on my thighs, were tightly gripping the edge of the waxen table. I could move! Like a veil being lifted, the shapes in the room started to lock back into a sensible configuration. The white noise started to fade out and I could again hear the red woman’s chanting seeping in.
The creature detached from one person and launched a hand onto another anonymous face. The person sitting directly to my right. It was rotating in my direction. Over the static noise I could hear gurgling and sucking, the black sinewy arm pulsing and vibrating.
Suddenly, reality seemed to be returning to me in waves. My head darted from side to side, looking at the creature, then its hollowed-out victims, then the red woman, then my friends…
My friends! They were still in a daze. And I could see the terror on their faces. All three of them, eyes bugged out, heaving chests, but still sitting obediently. I could feel strength flowing back into my limbs. My hands released the table. My legs started to shift out from under me. Before I knew what I was even doing, I was on my feet, scrambling to shake my friends out of their terrible trance. “JAS-! TIM! BRE-!” I could barely get the names out.
Miraculously, this seemed to break the spell for them. All three fell back, their legs kicking away, trying to put distance between themselves and the creature. The red woman stopped her chanting and shot a look of combined shock, terror, and rage right at us.
The black monster noticed. Its vibration ceased and it twisted its head and torso around to look at us, three arms still jutting out from dead faces. It let out a shriek more shrill and devastating than the one it entered our world with. The noise seemed to cut directly through us. Every one of its terrible clawed hands dropped their task and lunged in our direction in a tangle.
The next few moments are still a blur for me to this day. I only remember sprinting to the front door. It had looked like one of the monster’s hands had reached Jason’s face, but I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t think at all, only run. The shrill, multitudinous screech followed me as I raced through the front door, down the driveway, and into the street. At least two people were running along with me. I didn’t even turn my head to see who it was. We ran faster and longer than we ever had, or likely would. Every muscle including my heart seared with pain, and I ran still.
We didn’t stop until we were out of that entire neighborhood, past the public pool, and heading towards familiar territory. I hunched down, supporting my arms with my own knees, panting heavily, and checked to see who was with me. All of us had made it out. Jason, Tim, and Brett, all three were fighting to catch their breath. I immediately collapsed onto my back right there on the sidewalk. I heard Jason say through heavy breaths, “It.. HUFF, got…HUFF, my Freddy face…” That probably would have been funny in different circumstances. I could do nothing but pant.
* * * * *
We shuffled home in utter silence. We passed by the house with the garage haunt from a distance, and saw people tearing everything down and shutting off lights. We saw more smashed pumpkins. Three kids even older than us jogged across the street with sacks of candy but no costumes, giggling and socking each other. Maybe bag snatchers. We didn’t care about any of it. We didn’t say a word about the fact that we had left not only our masks behind in that… house, but the night’s entire haul of candy. It didn’t even enter my mind until much later.
By the time we finally reached our own neighborhood and street, the adrenaline had completely worn off, and my entire body, but especially my legs and feet, were aching fiercely.
I looked at Brett. He never called me Shawn. There were tears in his eyes, but he couldn’t get out the words. I just nodded my head. It was his apology.
I walked through the front door of my house, and saw the huge plastic bowl sitting just inside, a few solitary Tootsie Rolls the only remains of the night’s offerings. My parents were sitting on the sofa in the dark watching Halloween 4, or 5, or God knows which. Mom glanced over her shoulder at me for half a second; “Hey Shawnie.” When I didn’t answer they both looked over and saw my condition. Sweaty, disheveled, eyes red, no mask, no pillow sack. My dad, concern in his voice said, “Shawn? What…?” I didn’t answer. I couldn’t begin to think of what to say. I just went to my room, collapsed on the bed without even removing my filthy costume, and drifted off.
I slept until 12:30 that day – fortunately it was a Saturday – and for a few fleeting moments of regaining consciousness I had forgotten about the night’s horror. I briefly wondered if it had been a nightmare, but as clarity returned I knew, with a cold pit forming in my stomach, that it wasn’t.
My parents didn’t seem all that shocked when I lied and told them some bag snatchers had gotten all my candy. They promised to make my younger brother Todd share half of his haul. I told them it was OK. Although I had extremely clear memories of the night’s events, even I was having a hard time getting my mind to accept their reality. Trying to get anybody else to believe our story, on Halloween of all nights, was utterly futile. At best, our parents would think we got taken by a sick prank, and scold us for entering a stranger’s home. When I returned to school on Monday, I found out the other three guys came to the exact same conclusion.
From time to time the four of us would get together and recount what we all remembered from that night. It was hard to relive it. Sometimes one or all of us would come to tears talking about it. My memories turned out to be the most vivid of the group; most likely, we agreed, because I spat out the “wine”, or whatever it actually was. But we all remembered the creature, and what it did to those people. No matter how hard we try, none of us will ever forget that. Their hollow faces…
After much deliberation we decided to report the house to the police. We rode our bikes to the police station and asked to fill out a report about suspicious activity at that address. But we had planned poorly. Our stories about what we thought we saw or heard on Halloween were vague, and we didn’t even know the address. We told the officer at the front desk which street it was and a description of the house, and said we heard screaming inside. The officer told us we’d hear from them if they needed any more information. Of course, we never heard from them.
Several months later, we finally built up the courage to go back to the house ourselves – in broad daylight. Maybe, we thought, we’d be able to spot something concrete to report to the cops. When we got there, the house looked more like all the other houses on that street. The grass was now dead and overgrown. Dust caked all the windows. Newspapers piled up in the driveway. And there was a realtor’s sign planted in the front yard.
But there was one more thing. One thing that to this day, 20 years later, still gives me anxiety, and makes me unable to put that night behind me for good. One detail that still haunts my every sleepless night. A black streak, running from the front door, down the driveway, and fading out into the asphalt street still remained. Going in the direction we had run.