Monday, April 11, 2011

Part 5 - Halloween, Mardi Gras, and Neighborhood Horrors

If you want a history of Halloween, I'm sure there are many, many sites on the Internet and documentaries on educational channels that can tell you of its origin and customs.  However, growing up in suburban New Orleans during Halloween in the late '60's and early '70's afforded several unique experiences that helped hone my interests and to be truthful, are probably one of the significant contributors to why I have become a monster maker.

I wish I could recall the actual name of the suburb when we moved from the East Bank of New Orleans (which is the side of the Mississippi River where New Orleans proper is) to the West Bank.  I was very young, probably three or four years old and my recollections are now faded and yellowed like old photographs.  The street, Morningside Drive (which you can Google if you are that interested) was a fairly straight street that crossed a main thoroughfare called Carol Sue and bisected Marlin Court into East and West Marlin Courts respectively.

Houses were still under construction on Morningside when we moved in and by the time I was 8 or 9 years old, there were still large sections of woods that surrounded West and East Marlin Court streets.  What this meant were two things: a.) There were always big piles of sandy dirt to play in at construction sites and b.) When it was time for adventure, the woods were right down the street.

You can imagine, however, what this would be like on a cold, dark Halloween night.  We would move from house to house trick-or-treating, then there would be a long stretch of road that just pushed through the dark woods on either side. In the distance we could see a scattering of little houses with their porch lights and jack-o-lanterns luring us like moths to the flame, tempting us to brave the dark woods for the promise of Halloween candy.

It was 1972, a group of us were walking down one of these dark streets chattering to distract ourselves from the creepiness of the surrounding woods.  I'm not sure about my friends, but I had seen the television movie THE NIGHT STALKER with Darren McGavin earlier that year.  It concerned a low-rent newspaper reporter (McGavin) chasing a vampire around contemporary Las Vegas and it was VERY frightening. It was so effective that is spawned a sequel and a subsequent television series.  One of the reasons it was so effective was the portrayal of the vampire by actor Barry Atwater.

Barry Atwater as the Vampire from THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)
So there we were, a small group of ten year-olds walking down a dark street in the woods on Halloween Night, when from out of the darkness we heard the rumble of a car behind us. We looked  and saw a shiny, red, 1972 Ford Mustang roaring up the street and instinctively moved to the curb to give the vehicle a wide berth.  It passed us with no incident then stopped, it's brake lights glowing red like a pair of demonic eyes in the dark.  Suddenly, the reverse lights came on and the car STARTED TO BACK UP towards us!

We were so frightened that we didn't know what to think, until the car pulled up right next to us.  Sitting behind the wheel was a guy who looked JUST LIKE BARRY ATWATER FROM THE NIGHT STALKER!!!!!  No one made a sound. Then, as the driver smiled, we saw them....TWO FANGS.  Not the plastic kind we were all familiar with, but what looked like real teeth.  Before anyone of us could make a sound, the car tore off into the night leaving us in a cloud of burned tire rubber.  That is an absolutely true story, but not the best or scariest Halloween experiences that I've ever had.

The best Halloween experience from my childhood started in early October.  I can't remember the year, but I do remember the wooden sign with the gold letters that read SATAN'S PALACE that appeared on a neighbor's house down the street. Satan's Palace? Satan's Palace? SATAN'S PALACE!  It was confounding and it wasn't unusual for a crowd of kids to gather around the driveway gazing at that sign.  In addition, the family living there had been doing a garage conversion on their one-story house and where the garage door had been, there was now a window frame filled with a big, black temporary wall.

Satan's Palace as it appears today - you'd never know...But you can see the garage conversion, still there.
During the evening, this family, whom I had never met, would put Disney's Thrilling Chilling Sounds of the Haunted House on a record player and to make things tantalizing, a red pitchfork would appear around the temporary wall every now and then.  Halloween could not come fast enough!

Halloween night my little group ran from door-to-door trick-or-treating rapidly making our way to Satan's Palace.  When we got there we joined a queue of kids lined up entering a wood fence into the back yard. In the back, was a haunted Halloween carnival!  There was a fanged wild man swinging from a rope wearing an animal skin; real snakes were draped over the tree branches; a mad doctor performed an experiment on a corpse while lit control panels blinked behind him.  A werewolf growled and swiped his claws at us and at the end of the tour, a witch stirred a huge cauldron of hot chocolate that she dispensed and handed to each of us.  None of us had ever experienced a yard haunt of this complexity and ambition.  That was the best, but it wasn't the scariest.

The scariest happened a year or two later.  With no warning or preview, our band of trick-or-treaters rounded the corner to see a huge group of kids gathered at the door of a house.  We pushed our way past the kids until we could see what they all were looking at:  The front door was open, the screen door was closed.  All of the furniture and furnishings were taken out of the front room.  Now, all that remained was a lawn chair beneath one bare light bulb.  Sitting in the chair was a tall man, wearing a cheap rubber Halloween mask and at his feet a big, BIG bowl of candy.  Talk about a freak out. By the way, this was YEARS before Michael Myers and John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN.  No one would go in, but no one was leaving either.  Finally, one kid opened the door and took a furtive step in, without hesitation, the guy in the mask stood and all the kids in the neighborhood ran off into the night screaming and then ultimately laughing.

It is amazing that these folks felt so strongly about providing thrills for us kids on Halloween night and with no D.I.Y. shows, or web sites, or anything but their imaginations and ingenuity to assist them.  They were real Halloween heroes.  I had no idea that across the country, performer, collector, and all around genre aficionado, Bob Burns, and his wife Cathy were enlisting the help of up and coming special effects legends like Rick Baker, Phil Tippet, Dennis Muren and others to assist him in putting on elaborate shows for the neighborhood kids. Of course, what they were doing was so much more elaborate than the bed sheet mazes in garages and the greasepaint vampires in our neighborhood, but that wasn't the point.  The point was to scare and entertain kids with no expectation of compensation or fame.  A truly selfless (and sometimes expensive) act.

Living in New Orleans afforded folks something that was rarely enjoyed in the other 49 states: The chance to dress up in costumes again in the Spring and we did, during Carnival.  On Mardi Gras day, my family would put together some half-assed theme costumes like hillbillies or we'd just don some Carnival masks, or whatever.  One year, however, I decided to go all out and attempt my first PLANET OF THE APES make up.  No foam latex, no latex at all.  I tried putting papier mache over a crude clay sculpt producing upper and lower muzzle pieces.  Grabbing one of my mother's old wigs (more on that later) I tried to paint my face and then glue the pieces on my face with spirit gum.  Disaster.  No matter how much spirit gum I applied, the pieces would fall off of my face.  Finally, I had to attach elastic and make it into a mask as best as I could.  I was determined.  I grabbed an old green sweatshirt drew what I thought was a cool P.O.T.A. design and then made the second biggest mistake of that year...oh, and this hurts to admit....I had to figure out what I was going to wear on my legs.

Folks, when you are 10 years-old and have to spend the day away from home at a parade, never wear tights.True, the effect was fine for an hour, a few minutes, okay, it was horrible from the beginning but I had made a commitment to myself and I was going to stick to it and I did...It was the longest Mardi Gras of my life.

As horrible as I look, what's up with the rest of my family?
Over the decades, Mardi Gras has changed; it is less of the city-wide celebration by families and tourists and more about drunk college students and corporate sponsorship.  Hey, everyone's gotta make money and I get it, but Mardi Gras was different when I was growing up.

Not to say that it was any less dangerous.  At the Krewe of Choctaw parade in Algiers, Louisiana, I saw a young man with a knife, cut deep into my friend's thigh to get his foot off an aluminum doubloon.  I'll never forget the police, the ambulance, the screaming, and the blood.  My friend needed something like 72 stitches in his leg and finished that semester of school from his bed.  I was roughly nine years-old when I saw that.

A few years later, another kid from around the corner came screaming at the top of his lungs riding his bike.  Instinctively we jumped on our bikes and followed him to the woods.  Wrapped in a soggy cardboard box was the corpse of a young woman from the East Bank who had been raped and murdered.  I didn't have the fortitude to look at her face, I just saw her arm and the color and the pallor of her arm would forever be burned into my memory.


  1. Halloween. OUR HOLIDAY as kids, second only to Christmas morning in magnitude, but the candy lasted so much longer. I see the kids that go Trick-or-Treating nowdays, and you'd swear that they, and their parents, could never be bothered to even go through the motions of wearing a costume, store-bought or otherwise. That was the fun of it. For a week or better, I would come home from school all excited to se what progress my mother had made on sewing a pirate's outfit complete with a felt eyepatch.

    And I agree, Mardi Gras was so much different when we were kids. When I tell freinds and co-workers that I avoid Mardi Gras parades like the plague, or any other large drunken crowd, for that matter, they swear that I was not born and raised in New Orleans. I could show them my birth certificate, but they would claim it is a forgery. (President Obama -- I have empathy for you in this regard.)

    I also remember the "body in the box" event. I lived a bit further away and never "visited the site", in fact I did not even hear about it until a couple of days later. One of the kids in my neighborhood excitedly claimed to have seen and even to have actually touched the body. Then and now I doubted that he was being truthful. We had all seen dead animals on the roads, and his feigned bravado to having been anywhere near a dead person simply was not believable. Years later, when the movie "Stand By Me" came out I recalled the whole story, and wondered if the people that found the body had been as affected as the kids in the movie.

  2. Halloween is my ab-SO-lutey favorite holiday.

  3. did women still flash their boobs back then? was that why you hated wearing tights during the parade? (pitching a tent I mean)

  4. Sorry Griff -

    I left New Orleans in 1985 and the "Show Us Your Tits" campaign began shortly after. Mardi Gras has changed and it depends on your point of view whether it has improved or declined. When we went to Mardi Gras in the sixties and seventies, it was much less corporate and sponsored. MTV really screwed up Mardi Gras by promoting it as a national college Spring Break destination. But if that's what appeals to you, then I suppose you should go to Mardi Gras; personally, I thought that Destin and Ft. Lauderdale were more appropriate destinations for that kind of "fun." At least the chances of getting jumped or knifed on a beach in Florida seem to be smaller, but, honestly, I couldn't say.

    As for the tights, let me say this: Fat kids in tights are sad. At least they are to a fat kid like me.