How to Survive Halloween in the ‘70s: A Child’s Guide

Photo by Toni Cuenca on

Sure life seemed simple. We had thin, cheap, store-bought outfits and flimsy, plastic masks with small eye holes that blocked your vision. The mask usually snapped off your head before you left home due to elastic band fastener failure. We had a society free from any sensitivities about whether a costume could be offensive. We had parents with little fear about their children wandering around unsupervised in the dark knocking on doors to ask for candy from strangers.

But if you think that the 70s were a carefree decade for children and are nostalgic for the good old days—Know that Halloween was actually a labyrinth of complex decisions and calculations to ensure your survival. Especially when you’re a shy, scaredy-cat kid on the scariest day of the year. Let this tutorial give you the skinny on how to survive Halloween in the ‘70s.

1. Spend weeks tormented by indecision about which costume will help you blend in the most.

The challenge of this is your lack of imagination, so ask your mom. When you’re 5 this is acceptable and when you’re 13 and your classmates are staying home to pass out candy, still ask your mom. Store bought costumes though unoriginal are the popular choice and are more acceptable to peers than home-made. Decline your mom’s offer to sew you a special costume. You remember the mocking when classmates asked if your mom made your school clothes. Watch as many commercials about Halloween costumes as you can to research the possibilities. Ask all your classmates at school. After rejecting all ideas, finally accept your mom’s offer to go to the drug store to buy something the day before Halloween. Hope that it’s not just a few rejected costumes with mostly bare shelves.

Girl in witch costume
Halloween 1975, Photo by P.A. Free

2. Choose your costume wisely.  

DO NOT let your grandfather come up with your costume. He is charcoal crazy. You remember the one time he was visiting around Halloween and you, and your brother were undecided about what to be. He dressed you and your brother in the same costume. Somehow small charcoal pieces appeared. Did he rummage through the little barbeque pit in the backyard? He began rubbing charcoal all over your faces.

“Ummm, what costume is this grandpa?”

“A Hobo”

“What’s a Hobo?”

“A Vagabond.”

“What’s a vagabond? And why do I need to get a long stick in the yard so you can tie a cloth napkin to it? Is this from a movie?”

As confused as you were about who you were dressed as, it was funny to have an adult, especially him, make your face dirty. He often tells you to wash your hands and face because you’re filthy, and not just before eating. He never lets you try on his fedora because he’s afraid you have head lice. He always complains about how dirty he gets as soon as he walks in the door and is constantly, brushing his pants off. Your dog’s fur magically suctions to his pants even when she’s in the other room.  

Choose something cartoonish, so you don’t scare yourself. Maybe a clown. Though you are not crazy about clowns, they seem harmless to you. After all the popular Barnum and Bailey Circus, you saw once, was fun. No creature was ever hurt there, you tell yourself. Maybe a witch. You just have to tell yourself she’s a good witch, no matter how bleak the pictures on your plastic cape are.

You could be Caspar the Friendly Ghost. But know that people in the 70s are very concerned about your gender and whether your costume is something someone of your gender should wear. Both children and adults will comment on your choice. When you suggest costume ideas out loud to others, you may hear: “A boy/girl can’t be a ______.” If a boy dresses up as a witch, he will be told he is a warlock. Somehow though you learn that Caspar the Friendly Ghost (previously a boy in cartoon life) is acceptable by society for a girl to be on Halloween.  

  1. Find friends to go with you.

Your brother, two years older, usually goes to his best friend’s house to trick or treat in that neighborhood. Your natural choice is Beth, a girl one year younger. She is assertive, out-going girl who talks endlessly. You met her at the bus stop when she moved into the neighborhood and then she just started knocking on your door every weekend and asking if you could come out and play. You were not used to invitations, so you always said yes. Even though her endless talking and questions made you tired after several hours. She tells you that she will come get you for trick-or-treating. That plan worked until she moved away.

Three kids in Halloween costumes in 1973
Halloween 1973, Photo by P.A. Free

One year, in search of a friend, you ask the only kid in the neighborhood who is near your age if you can go with him and his younger brother. Richy is a friendly boy, who seems anxious a lot, stutters and is uncoordinated. One time when playing catch in your front yard with your brother, the baseball came flying through your bay window in your small living room shattering glass everywhere. Your mother was very upset and shaken up as she was sitting in that room at the time and could have been hit by flying glass. Richy was very apologetic, stuttering uncontrollably, and said it was an accident and he did not know how it happened. When your mom asks him to explain anyway, he said he was trying to throw to your brother (he gestures parallel to the house) but somehow threw this way, (he gestured toward the window — a right angle). If it was anyone else, you would not have believed it was an accident. But you once saw him carry his trumpet to the bus stop with the bell sticking out of a duffle bag stuffed with books and when asked, he said he lost his trumpet case in his bedroom. So, you believe that anything is possible. In sixth grade, when two girls your age move into the neighborhood, they invite you to go with them  

4: Stay with the group!

Be vigilant! Run if necessary to stay with the group. If a treat-giver answers the door, runs out of candy and needs to go back inside to refill, leave treatless rather than lose your group. The danger is not just the older teenagers with their projectile eggs, and shaving cream bottles adapted for distance spraying to mark the stragglers, but the real danger is Nathaniel (name changed for your safety). To call him the neighborhood bully, would be to diminish his maniacal nature that you can see in his cold, dead eyes. He is older and doesn’t go to your school. He goes to a private school. Maybe the Catholic school. You saw him in a school uniform once. You had heard the stories of his bullying. A bully to all who crossed his path. He did not bully you verbally. His weapon of choice was any weapon available.

But it wasn’t until you were maybe 8 playing alone in your front yard, that you really saw his true nature directed at you. He lives directly across the street from you. He had a gun in his hand. That was not unusual. Toy guns were popular in the 70s. Cork guns, cap guns, water guns. They all looked real to your eyes. You even had a steel, revolver cap gun. But NEVER point it at a person was the rule. You stare at him as he stood at the end of your driveway. As he slowly lifted his gun and pointed, you ran as fast as you could to hide. You couldn’t outrun him, so you ran behind this fiberglass wall that was attached to your house next to your utility room. You ducked behind a garbage bin and heard ping after ping on the wall and knew it was a BB gun. You were grateful it was only a BB gun. You tried to get in the back door, but it was locked. You peeked between a crack in the post and the wall, and he had come onto the property, but only 10 feet. Hmm. (He may be afraid of your mother. Your mom once burst out of the house during Nathaniel’s repeated rock-throwing session at your brother during a neighborhood game of kickball on the road in front of our house. She grabbed Nathaniel by his shirt collar and screamed in his face for several minutes. You recall his silence and emotionless face during those minutes.)

Boy with gun
Photo by Pixabay

Nathaniel started losing interest and walking away with his BB gun. You stayed hidden and watched. Then you ran fast to sneak in the front door. Locked. You banged on the door and whisper yelled to get in. Nothing. You kept your eyes on him. A little boy, maybe 5, suddenly burst out his front door to play in his yard. But his yard was right next to the bully’s yard. The bully saw him and shot repeatedly. Then, screaming and sobbing, the boy grabbed his stomach and doubled over, falling to the ground. The boy’s mom opened the door, saw her son and the gun in the bully’s hand. The bully stood and watched. An ambulance came and took the little boy away. You waited for the police to come and arrest the bully. Nothing. Maybe it happened later after you stopped watching. You tell yourself he’ll get taken away now and won’t ever hurt anyone again.

5: Accept all experiences politely—cheap or unusual treats and odd treat-giver behavior.

The memorable treats are usually not for good reasons. Be prepared! One woman gives out a single dime each year. Wearing a mask lets you hide your disappointment. But you can still stare into your bag to make sure she dropped it in. But it’s impossible to see – lost in the spaces beside candy. Dimes don’t have the pleasant thud of candy when it lands in a bag. You can calculate then what a dime can buy you…one local call on a payphone, but you don’t have anyone to call. Maybe a whole candy bar in the early 70s, but you know in the late 70s, that a candy bar is 20 cents. Maybe a dime will buy you a gumball in one of those machines at the front of the grocery store. Anyway, remember to say “Thank you” for any item tossed in your bag. You can frown at the apple-givers, because you know that’s not a real treat. Your mom is always pushing apples. And these, the treat-giver must know, will be tossed due to the embedded razor blade potential. Give a quizzical look to the treat-giver who comes to the door with a tray of freshly made candy apples for you to choose from. Take one and look around with what to do with it. Plop it in the bag to make all your candy sticky or hold it in one hand and your bag in another.  

Tray of candied apples
Candied apples
Photo by Francesco Ungaro from Pexels

“Just eat it now,” someone yells to all the confused kids. After the door closes as your group walks away, you may see red, gooey, sphere-like objects decorating the grass. But you just carry the stick as you walk. Littering on the lawn of the treat-giver is not polite.

Be prepared to plead your case with the confrontational treat-givers. If your neighborhood has a circular road and you approach a childless house on the opposite side of where you live, expect to be questioned each year. When a man opens the door and surveys the group of kids, he will ask firmly and loudly: “Do you kids live in this neighborhood? I’m not giving you candy if you live somewhere else.”

Angry man in red hood

Photo by Sebastiaan Stam from Pexels

Your group collectively mumbles, “Yes, sir,” but that is not enough for him.

As you approach one by one, you’ll have to answer his question again. You say “Yes”, and he’ll give you a treat with a scowl on his face. He may ask, “Where do you live?” before giving up a treat. You’ll point in the general direction and say “On the other side.”

When your group gathers to leave, he may send some parting threats.

“I’ve never seen most of you kids before. You better not be from another neighborhood. I’ll find out. I’ll call your parents.”  

You stop for a moment and look around at the other kids, curious how anyone could recognize us.

“Does he know that we’re wearing masks?” you ask yourself. “How will he get the phone numbers of children he can’t identify?” And then, “Was this worth two little Starbursts?”

One year, with new neighbors, you may encounter generous treat-givers. (It’s more likely you were in a friend’s much nicer neighborhood). This family may have bowls and bowls of treats. Pouring scoopfuls from each bowl into your bag. You may be in shock at the generosity but confused by the lack of packaging. Scoops of large free flowing marshmallows, followed by scoops of loose Oreo cookies, scoops of popcorn and scoops of loose Red Hots. You are not a germophobes in the 70s or even germ-aware. But you have been conditioned by repeated warnings on TV and in school to believe that any food not in its intact original packaging could have sharp objects in it.

  1. Get home in the same physical condition you left home.

Your constant bully-awareness and precautions will finally pay off. Your last year of trick or treating in the sixth grade (or so you say), the year you go with the two new neighborhood girls, he strikes. After you’re done trick-or-treating, you drop each member of your group off at their house as you pass it. Unfortunately, you are the last and have to drop yourself off. You see Nathaniel standing on the hill, that last stretch of road you need to travel to get home. You go back to the last friend’s house to ask to call your mom, as you gesture toward the road, saying only “Nathaniel.” Instead, your friend insists that her dad walk you home.

Her dad, who you’ve never met, comes outside and walks with you. As you approach the hill, the bully slowly retreats from the hill, matching your slow pace. Soon, the dad has claimed the hill. He tells you that you’re safe now, even though you can see the bully standing in his front yard, across from yours. You calculate whether you can outrun this older boy and think not. But this dad is now king of the hill and his stern facial expression explains that the force of his will can keep the bully in his yard. The dad stands firm on the hill and tells you again that you’re safe and can go home. You do not have faith in this stranger dad who won’t actually walk you home but is protecting you with his mental power. But since you are now too far from a phone to call your mom, you are expected to be thankful and listen to this borrowed dad walking you part-way home. So, you run as fast as you can to your house, while keeping Nathaniel always in your view. Thankfully your mother unlocks the door quickly when you bang on it. You get inside, lock the door and sigh.

7: Inspect and inventory your hard-earned treasures.

Dump all the candy on the living room floor carpet. Toss anything without wrappers (bye fruit) or with torn wrappers. Examine what remains closely for any pin-sized holes. Then, sort out which candy you want to definitely keep: anything chocolate, candy necklaces, Starburst, Bottle Caps, and Blow Pops. Then, collect the candy you are open to trading with your brother: Gobstoppers, Pop Rocks, Sweetarts, Smarties, any plain hard candy (butterscotch, peppermint), Dum-Dum Pops and various gums (Bubble Yum, Bazooka, Fruit Stripe). Mom will let you have a few pieces to eat, but then take the rest for safe-keeping. When your mother is health conscious and has a huge garden and rarely lets sugar in the house, except on special occasions, you expect to have your sugar confiscated. House rules. The next day, when you ask for more candy after dinner, she tells you how many pieces to choose. While you suspect that your pile has gotten a little smaller from when you last saw it. You dare not question the candy-keeper.  

  1. Rejoice and reflect on your survival.

As you rest in bed exhausted before falling to sleep, you reflect on this strange custom that is expected of children each year. Is it worth all the stress on your sensitive psyche? All the preparation. All the unexpected interactions. Just to beg for tiny bits of candy from strangers? Rarely, did anyone give out whole-sized candy bars. If they did, it was news that traveled quickly. “You have to go to that house. Whole candy bars!!!” But no, what we got were tidbits, that when put in a pile looked significant.

Then you recall the beauty of the collection—the little treasures, so beautifully packaged in bright colors with fancy letters, as they lay sprawled across the carpet when you first freed them from the bag. When sugar is rare in your life and always portioned, then to see so much of it all in one place and in so many shapes and shades beyond what you could imagine, it is spectacular. You conclude that this once-a-year extravaganza of anxiety, confusion, disappointment, verbal threats from adults, fear for your physical safety and finally, elation is definitely worth the journey to get here.

Photo of Cat at Full Moon

    Photo by Pixabay

I hope this tutorial guides you to have a safe and successful ‘70s Halloween if you ever develop time-traveling capabilities and for some reason choose to be a child in a small town in a working-class neighborhood in Upstate New York.

Do you have any memorable Halloween adventures to share?

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