My brother and I were always Halloween nuts, and we would get increasingly excited as the night of festivities approached.
Our neighborhood, Kern Place, was always filled with kids racing from house to house, and our proximity to the United States/Mexico border drew several visitors from Ciudad Juarez. My father would dress up as a stuffed dummy, complete with a grim mask, and sit deathly still just out of view of trick-or-treaters until they reached the door. He would jump up and scare the living daylights out of the older kids and adults. Many homes had something similar going, and one house even created a walk-through haunted attraction, long before it was the vogue thing to do. Everyone looked forward to the next year’s scares and surprises.
Then something seemed to go a little sour with Halloween. In the early 1980s, many of the kids in the area begin to grow up, and the nation-wide focus of Halloween seemed to shift more and more towards adults. Drunken bacchanalia at nightclubs seemed to outnumber the family-friendly carnivals, costumes for men were getting sleazier, and costume for women were just plain insulting. Gore often replaced the gothic in people’s decorating choices, and it felt like there were less places for kids to go that seemed safe. Even my dad gave up his monster role when some stoned teens threw a five-pound weight on our porch, narrowly missing his head. There were still trick-or-treaters, but not as many.
There were some good things happening, too. Eventually, more and more schools, community centers, and places of worship began offering trick-or-treat alternatives, which many families appreciated (my own church still does an incredible “trunk-or-treat” event) but many people missed that “old school” romp around the neighborhood.
It took the next generation of residents to rebuild it, and in the last couple of decades, Kern Place has taken back the night. More young families moved back into the area, fixed up their old homes, and made Halloween an event known by nearly every other neighborhood in the city, as well as surrounding communities in Southern New Mexico and Northern Mexico.
Today, nearly everyone in Kern Place geeks out on Halloween night. Residents and guests gather by the hundreds in the neighborhood park for an impromptu costume parade, then flee in all directions for a night of trick-or-treating and house parties. Many homes maintain elaborate displays or little haunted houses. One house I recall, would show classic monster movies on the lawn, where families could sit on hay bales and take a short rest from walking. People often choose the evening to set up an open house style party spread for their friends, and families from less fortunate areas bus in their kids to be part of things in a place they know they are welcome. Some high school and college groups have taken advantage of the opportunity to host door-to-door food drives for area food banks for the upcoming holiday season, and trick-or-treat for canned goods and other nonperishable items.
To accommodate the large throngs of ghoulies and ghosties, some of the neighborhood additions in past years have included temporarily blocking off the busiest streets around the park to vehicle traffic, and hosting live bands in the gazebo.
It’s like a mini, family-friendly, spooky Mardi Gras, and it has become a proud neighborhood trademark.
There’s no waiting at the door for the bell to ring, as visitors form neat little queues at the door of every participating home, which don’t seem to dwindle for a good two or three hours, and visitors, for the most part, know to not disturb the homes without a lit porch light or some form of Halloween trappings out front.
My dad is now purchases enough candy, wrapped cookies, plastic rings, and other Halloween trinkets for nearly a thousand kids. He always runs out.
Some may think, “Noooo way! I don’t want anywhere near that chaos.” That’s fine. There are those within the Kern Place community who share that sentiment.
A few years ago, one neighborhood resident was so averse to the idea of this trick-or-treat romp, this person hired an off-duty police officer to stand guard on their lawn, lest some stray little costumed hooligan dare ring a doorbell. I remember feeling sorry for that poor officer spending his Halloween in the edge of a lawn looking slightly apologetic at the crowd. I assume he was making good money for his troubles, but I also felt sorry for whoever felt they had to barricade themselves away from the events.
Maybe it was simple fear of living in a border community where there had been, that particular year, some pretty scary drug-related violence neighboring Juarez. Maybe they were just grouchy by nature. Maybe the evening’s activities interfered with their faith. I tend to think this person was just feeling alone and depressed, with no friends or family around to pull them out of their loneliness.
That’s the beauty of what my childhood neighborhood did–and still does–every Halloween. It does strive to bring people out of their individual isolation, and onto their porches. Family members take turns manning their “candy stations” while others roam the neighborhood, visiting friends and neighbors they might not have taken the time to see during the regular rush of everyday life.
The best part is, everyone has the excuse to be someone else. Parents and kids walk side by side as hordes of friendly zombies, teams of superheroes, or covens of colorful witches and wizards. There is no competitive pressure of costume contests, no need to try attract the hormonal attention of a potential mate, and no worries what other people will think.
This is an evening for fun… And family.
No one should be forced to celebrate something they don’t want, but those who haven’t taken advantage of the camaraderie in Kern Place are missing out on an absolute blast of a time.
Case in point was another Halloween curmudgeon, a single friend of my brother’s who had just purchased a new home near the park. We were all enjoying the neighborhood celebration with my brother’s young son, and decided to swing by his new home. My brother found him, pouting miserably in the back room of his dark home, watching television.
“That’s the only bad thing about this neighborhood,” he lamented. “Halloween.”
They left him to his movie in peaceful moodiness.
A couple of years later, this same friend found himself married, with his own young child. We caught him sitting on his porch that Halloween, surrounded by glowing pumpkins and trick-or-treaters. He didn’t have a costume, but he wore something even better–a huge, genuine smile. He had finally taken the open invitation to be part of things, to loosen up and geek out a bit over a time meant for fun. It’s easy to say it was being part of a family that drew him out of his shell, but sometimes a party’s just too welcoming to ignore.
Yes, Kern Place does Halloween right. Anytime I get down looking at the shrinking size of women’s costumes, the tendency for torture porn to replace monsters and ghouls, or the lack of safe places for kids to enjoy the thrill of the genuine trick-or-treat hunt, I am thankful for the people of Kern Place keeping their traditions alive.
I hope everyone can find a neighborhood like Kern in their area, and if not, I hope they take it upon themselves to get something similar going. Call it Halloween, call it Harvest, or just call it Family Night Out, but whatever its title, make it happen.
Halloween in Kern Place has taught me that when a neighborhood plays well together, maintains a family atmosphere, and welcomes others of all backgrounds, it is a winning combination.
When I worry about the world today, I turn to Halloween in my old neighborhood, and my faith in humanity is restored for a little while.
I hope everyone out there, wherever they are, has a safe, spooky, festive, and very happy Halloween.