It was cold that night, way colder than any Halloween should have been; so cold that my mom and her best friend, Melinda, didn’t bother to get out of the car while my best friend and I stomped the sidewalk. I don’t remember what we had dressed up as, just that my breath puffed out ahead of me and I could hear gravel crunch beneath the tires of my mom’s puke-yellow hatchback. It was 1985, maybe ’86, and Ruidoso New Mexico looked much the same as it does today–a tiny mountain town tucked between a million swaying pines, each house subtly creepy with a front yard blanketed in fallen needles and leaves.
Halloween was mystical back then. Every house sported a glowing pumpkin on its doorstep, some of them carved into funny, smiling faces; others wearing menacing grimaces that told trick-or-treaters to beware. Chrissy and I ran from house to house, our plastic jack-o-lantern buckets bouncing against our knees. We yelled trick-or-treat at the top of our lungs, eagerly thrust our pumpkins out ahead of us, and awaited the crunch of candy wrappers piling one on top of the other.
With our mom’s warm in the car, talking and laughing and listening to Huey Lewis on the radio, we were given free reign to visit as many houses as we wanted. We’d run to the hatchback now and again to empty our pumpkins into pillow cases growing heavy with candy. We bounded from house to house, screaming at homeowners until they gave us what we wanted, then ran away in a fit of giggles, chasing each other across their lawns; our costumes mostly hidden by puffy winter coats.
But even Huey couldn’t stretch that block long enough, and before we knew it there was one house left. This house was different; uninviting, but it called to us anyway. This house didn’t have a pumpkin glowing on its doorstep. Instead, it had an orange light glowing just inside the door. Chrissy was older than me by two years; so when I hesitated, she grabbed the sleeve of my jacket and gave me a tug. We had visited every house on that street–scary or not, this last one was a matter of pride.
We bounded up the front steps and rang the bell, but our joyful scream for candy was cut short by what greeted us at the door. Hunched over, a man in a tux peered at us with bulging round eyes. The house was dark behind him, and his expression seemed to snarl at us despite his crooked smile.
“Trick or treat!” We eventually piped up, but our confidence was muddled by the creeps that crawled through our brains. This guy had probably spent most of his evening being laughed at by older kids, but to us he was terrifying in his weirdness. He lurched backward to fetch a bowl off a doorside table. To our surprise, it was full of candy rather than spiders. Grabbing fistfuls of sweets with a twisted hand, he wordlessly dumped them into our plastic pumpkins, taking the time to consider our costumes, to consider the two little girls on his doorstep and whether he was going to let us live or die. When he failed to speak after a few more seconds, Chrissy yelled “thank you!” and turned to bolt. I spun around behind her, gasping at the fact that I was being left behind, imagining Quasimodo’s hand grabbing my shoulder, grabbing and pulling until the darkness of that house consumed me.
I nearly tripped down the stairs as I dashed after my friend and ended up crashing into her when she stopped dead in her tracks. Quasimodo had spoken up as soon as our feet left his porch, and Chrissy was staring at him, wide-eyed at his warning.
“Girls,” he croaked. “Mind my brother. He’s a little crazy.” And then he shut the door.
We blinked at each other, our buckets heavy in our sweaty hands. Our faces twisted, ready for laughter, but freezing in matching grimaces as the growl of a chainsaw screamed into the night sky. It was a real chainsaw held over the head of a real man, his eyes wide with mania, his breath puffing out in front of him while his lips pulled away from his teeth. And then he started running, running toward us with that chainsaw pointing toward the moon, a yell tearing loose from his throat.
Chrissy’s scream stabbed into my right ear.
We ran as fast as we could, our legs heavy with terror, our breaths choppy and uneven. We were stuck in a dolly zoom; the harder we ran, the slower we seemed to go; the further we went, the longer the sidewalk stretched. Beyond scared, Chrissy and I forgot that our mothers’ were right beside us, warm in that ugly Civic, watching all of this unfold from behind breath-fogged glass. In our terror, we were alone, just the two of us outrunning the psychopath behind us, our plastic pumpkins wildly bouncing at our sides.
Those few terrifying seconds seemed to stretch for an eternity, and before I knew it I couldn’t run any further. My face stung in the cold, my tears bit into my cheeks. I stopped, coming to the slow realization that the growl of that chainsaw had faded into silence somewhere behind me. Chrissy gasped for air next to me, and as we turned our attention to the street, we saw our mom’s wiping tears from their eyes, their faces red with laughter. They hadn’t been more than a few yards from us the entire time.
Halloween has changed since then. The days of wielding power tools to scare the ever-living crap out of small children are long gone. Today, there would be talk of psychological damage, of law suits and prison time. That Halloween, for a few seconds, I had been scared out of my mind. I escaped with my life. I had outrun the psychopath behind me, but I failed to outrun the love of a good scare. That creepy house at the end of the street had an undeniable love for horror, and that night that love was passed on to me.
To Quasimodo and his crazy brother, thank you for transforming me into the creeper that I am today. Without you, my mind would be a little less twisted, a little less eager for the strange and unusual.
Now, my only hope is that I can twist a few minds myself. I can’t wield a chainsaw, but my imagination–and yours–will do.