Go to the Halloween section of any department store today and what will you see? An unbelievable selection of realistic and reasonably priced costumes for kids and adults in all shapes and sizes. Anything from Attila the Hun to Dora the Explorer and everything in between.
Today, there is no excuse for not having a decent costume on Halloween. It wasn’t so easy a couple decades ago.
In the 60s, 70s and 80s, well-made costumes were pretty much a privilege of the well-to-do, being quite pricey and difficult to come by. As a child of a salesman and a first grade teacher, fancy costumes were simply out of the question for me, my brother, and most of the kids we knew for that matter.
This left us with two options: the boxed costume sets, easily found at local department stores like Hills, G.C. Murphys or Westons; or the dreaded homemade costume.
While quite affordable, the boxed costume sets of my childhood were of the lowest quality imaginable. Each came with a mask and a sheath-like cover up that tied in the back.
The sheath “costume” was nothing more than a100% polyester, paper-thin hospital gown, with a lame picture printed on the front to resemble Bugs Bunny, Sleeping Beauty, or Fred Flintstone.
Not only did the poor children wearing these costumes look nothing like the characters they longed to portray, they had to steer clear of any open fires for fear that they might burst into flames and melt into puddles of synthetic goo.
The masks usually had two round holes to see through and a tiny slit at the mouth just big enough to stick a bit of tongue through. Presumably meant for breathing, the slit was not big enough to allow breath to escape, making the wearing of the mask a steamy, uncomfortable affair.
Made of eggshell-thin low quality plastic, the masks would crack with the slightest pressure, and the thin elastic band that went around the head had a working life of about an hour and a half.
Wearing one of these masks on Halloween night was like shooting craps. While trick or treating, you might lift the mask up to take a bite of a Charleston Chew or some Chuckles, and suddenly, the elastic snaps and the plastic cracks, leaving you with no disguise for the rest of the night. No disguise means you can’t go corning later for fear of being identified by your victims when they jump off the couch from watching Kojak or Love American Style to see who caused the racket on the front porch.
Getting caught might result in any one of a variety of heinous punishments common in the 60s, 70s and 80s. You would almost certainly suffer the public humiliation of sweeping up the corn from the neighbor’s porch the next morning, while all your friends looked on from their banana seat bikes. You might also receive “The Belt” (not a good thing considering that triple wide vinyl was fashionable in those days) or imprisonment in your room for at least a week.
But I never faced the risks associated with wearing the boxed costume sets. My first-grade-teacher-mother refused to buy the sets for my brother and me because they required “no creativity.” Instead, we were set adrift with nothing but our resourcefulness and what we could find around the house to come up with a homemade costume. Oh brother.
For many kids of “The Charlie Brown Generation,” a nice white sheet with two holes cut in it would do the trick. But we knew my mother expected us to suffer a little more than that for our costumes, besides, all our sheets had daisies or model Ts printed on them.
For a couple years, I used a grey wig my grandmother had discarded as the basis for disguising myself as “an old lady.” I added a crocheted shawl (not too hard to find, it was the 70s after all,) a wool skirt, some little glasses I fashioned from pipe cleaners and my mom’s junk jewelry. Voila! I looked just like Aunt Bea wearing Converse tennis shoes.
With the help of income from his paper route and a mail order add in the back of his Mad Magazine, my brother scored a big rubber Creature from the Black Lagoon mask, which he simply wore with jeans and a sweatshirt.
Despite the human clothing accompanying the mask, my brother’s get up terrified me because I had recently seen the movie. Every Saturday night, my brother was permitted to stay up after the Carol Burnett show and the eleven-o-clock news to watch “Chilly Billy Cardilly’s Chiller Theater,” a kitsch show airing a weekly double feature of classic horror movies such as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934).
Using my most effective means of persuasion – incessant whining – I was allowed to stay up with my brother, much to his dismay. He always propped himself on the couch, and I was left to huddle in my sleeping bag on the floor right in front of our console TV. One such night, Chilly Billy announced the lineup: The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) followed by The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967). My life was never the same.
Our Saturday night ritual definitely added “fear factor” to my Halloween experience. My rational side knew the ghouls and zombies in the street were just my brother and his mischievous friends, but my instinct told me that they were about to drag me off to some laboratory to be dismembered.
In the end, it didn’t matter whether the costumes were boxed sets or of the homemade variety, trick or treating back in those days was less about the costumes and more about being scary, or if you were like me, being scared. And like the Clark Bars, Chiclets and popcorn balls on Halloween night, there were plenty of each to go around.