Every October I declare my love for Halloween, making some thin argument that it’s the only “true” holiday because it inspires creativity rather than frenzied shopping malls or competitive dinner reservations. I’ll get on my soapbox and sermonize about the changing leaves, wax poetic about the smell of fireplaces, and encourage people to embrace the spirit of the macabre. But come October 31st I’m on my couch, picking candy corn from my teeth, flipping between the World Series and the Travel Channel's Haunted Destinations. I am the ultimate Halloween poser, which is ironic given that posing is such an integral part of the festivities.
My tapering enthusiasm follows the same basic pattern: it begins with a tinge of excitement, usually from seeing the vacated Back to School aisle in CVS now teeming with plastic vampire fangs and miniature Butterfingers. “Wow,” I say, realizing it’s not even Labor Day. “Plenty of time to come up with a great costume. I’ll show ‘em how creative I am!”
For the next ten minutes, while browsing through hair products, I sketch out some initial costume ideas. Historically I’ve always leaned toward actual human characters, like Han Solo or Axl Rose. These are people I want to dress up like anyway, and they don’t encumber me with sweaty latex masks or burdensome props, the kind without which my costume would be unrecognizable. At one Halloween party there was a Jesus with a six-foot cardboard cross jerry-rigged to his back. After an hour he discarded the cross and his costume went from Jesus to hacky sack player.
Usually by late September I begin toying with the idea of a seasonal activity, like a haunted hayride or a graveyard tour. I sense that the market for these things is dwindling, considering the number of Spookyworld coupons I’ve gotten lately from Dunkin Donuts. After a couple days I dismiss these activities as hokey and set my sights on something unregulated, like spending the night at Lizzie Borden’s Inn, or perhaps hosting a séance. At first these ideas are genius, but a week later they are completely forgotten, until I pass a Milton Bradley Ouija Board while shopping at Target. “Ah, right,” I say, raising my eyebrows and continuing on to the shower curtain aisle.
Sometime in early October my zeal fades and I start freeloading. It becomes less about what I can do for Halloween, and more about what Halloween can do for me, like that kid who shows up at your doorstep with an open bag and no costume. I might extend myself as far as a midnight showing of American Werewolf in London at some art house theater, but as soon as someone asks me to carve a pumpkin, I can’t be bothered. I get grumpy, acting as if it’s the mayor’s responsibility to get me in the mood by decorating the streets with hooded skeletons. “That’s the best they can do?” I’ll say, nodding through a subway window at a billboard for Hansel and Gretel On Ice. “My how times have changed.”
By mid-October my most festive gesture is grabbing a box of Count Chocula from the cereal aisle at Stop n’ Shop. “It’s limited edition,” I tell Amanda, who then tosses a box of Kashi over it so it isn’t visible to the other adult shoppers.
If I get invited to a Halloween party—which is rare considering I hardly know anyone—I’ll buy my costume on the way there. This often means wandering the aisles of iParty at 7:00 PM on the Saturday closest to Halloween. At that point the store looks like one of the houses in Whoville after the Grinch just stripped it clean. Walls of empty pegboard, polyester cloaks strewn across the floor, a lonely beer maid bustier dangling in the corner, staring back at me like the runt of the litter. “Come on, Danny. Get creative,” I say, scouring the store’s crevices, trying to harness those five minutes of eureka I experienced that day in CVS, two months before. But there’s not much to work with, and as a result I’ve shown up to parties in such gems as “New Year’s Eve Leprechaun” and “Priest with AK-47”.
I give a bad name to Halloween’s true foot soldiers: the people who decorate their yards with hanging corpses and Styrofoam gravestones, who buy wireless fog machines from Amazon and re-wire their doorbells to play the opening notes of “Thriller” upon each ring. The mothers that dress like witches and paint their faces green, cackling tirelessly with each roll of Sweet Tarts they hand out. The fathers that answer the door wearing kid-sized hockey masks, one hand massaging their lower back while the other wields a Fisher Price chainsaw. These people are the farmers, tilling the soil of tradition, while I pass through like the tourist I am, so quickly unimpressed by the view.
“Let’s go to Salem this Halloween,” suggested my then-girlfriend, Susannah. This was the fall of 1997. I was a senior at Emerson College, commuting from my parents’ house in Newton, working part-time at a restaurant and saving my money. I’d been hospitalized earlier that summer for an acute Crohn’s flare-up, and, as is so often the case with the recently convalescent, I was in the mood for a little joie de vivre. That Halloween, I was going all out.
I spent eighty bucks and rented a Batman costume. Not the tights that Adam West wore in the 60s TV show; that outfit makes even a small boy look like a middle-aged man, the kind of middle-aged man who is still spoon-fed cold medicine and who truly believes he is Batman.
This suit was the real deal, the rubber body armor that Michael Keaton made famous in 1989. (Actually, the Keaton edition had been rented, so I settled for the George Clooney version; they looked similar enough.) It took twenty minutes just to try it on. A sales associate had to assist me in the dressing room, handing me one piece at a time: the right glove, the cowl, the belt, the codpiece. “I think these Velcro straps go like this,” he said, securing the chest plate. He was a lanky high school kid with wire-rimmed glasses and a goofy pompadour; I thought he would make a fine Alfred and imagined him carrying a tray with soup up a staircase, or handing me the latest police files on the Joker while I sat in my study, staring at the fireplace.
I picked up the suit the day before Halloween. As soon as I got home I tried it on again, this time in the privacy of my parents’ bedroom, in front of my mother’s full-length mirror, where the light fell evenly, unlike the fluorescents of the costume shop. Overall it was impressive, but there were some evident flaws. First of all, I was too skinny to fill out the suit. I hadn’t yet regained all the weight I lost from my recent Crohn’s relapse. My chest and shoulders slid around under the armor, and my jaw appeared too narrow and delicate inside the mask. Had I been going for an intellectual or a sensitive Batman, or Batman the Mandolin Player, I would have nailed it. But as a menacing figure of justice, I fell short.
Even more frustrating was the cowl’s right ear. There was a stitch in the foam latex, indicating repairs had been done to it. As a result, the right ear bent inward while the left ear stood up straight and firm. This drove me crazy. It looked as if one ear was begging for the other’s forgiveness. I tried pressing it with an iron to straighten it out, but as soon as I pulled the cowl back over my head the right ear slowly sagged back down to a forty-five degree angle. The heat only seemed to make it worse, softening the material so that the ear hung limp at the seam. This was not a formidable look. This was a shameful look, as though Batman had just been yelled at for peeing on the floor and was sent whimpering back to his crate.
I reminded myself that Batman is not just a costume. It’s an attitude. A persona. Minor costume flaws are insignificant. To become the Dark Knight I must adopt his agility and impenetrable focus, his ability to be unseen, to blend in, to strike fear into the hearts of criminals everywhere.
“I’m Batman,” I whispered, staring into the mirror. I raised my arms wide, spreading the cape out behind me. At first it felt awesome, but the longer I held the pose, the more I felt like Liberace, about to take a bow.
I decided to wear the suit as much as possible for the next twenty-four hours. This was an attempt to not only get comfortable in it, but also to become it. I wore the gloves and mask at the dinner table, practicing my scowl as I forked mashed potatoes and green peas into my mouth. “Look at this,” my father said, shaking his head. “Twenty-five grand a year for film school, and this is what happens.”
My mother found it amusing. She said it reminded her of when I was very young, how I’d dress in my Batman Underoos, hide in the bushes and scare the neighbors that walked past the house.
“I was just a kid back then,” I said. “This suit is much different, mom. It’s for men.” I got up from the table and carried my empty plate to the sink.
That night Susannah, myself and another couple took a drive around Newton and smoked a joint. We stopped at a 7-11 for snacks, where I forgot I was dressed like Batman and assumed my customary stoned ritual of hovering in the Hostess aisle for at least ten minutes, my face slack, my eyes bloodshot, deciding between Ho-Hos or Powdered Donuts. I’d reach out and touch one of the packages and hold my finger there, mumbling things like “chocolate” or “soft and powdery” or “do I even want this?”
Everything was fine until I heard "Look, Dad. Batman!" A young boy and his father were at the other end of the aisle. I waved at them with a gloved hand, the hand still holding the Ho-Hos.
When the clerk rang up my junk food it occurred to me that I didn't have my wallet. The Batsuit does not come with pockets. I went to the parking lot to borrow money from Susannah when I saw the father and son again. They drove past me in a pickup truck, their headlights shining on me, just as Susannah handed me a twenty through the car window.
I imagined the boy asking his father why Batman needed money, and the father assuring him that Batman would be okay, that he's just in a bad place right now.
The thought of that made me so depressed, I didn't even want the Ho-Hos anymore.
* * * *
Salem is a quaint seaside town, home to the early settlers, and, of course, the infamous witch trials of the late seventeenth century. Every October the town celebrates its history by cordoning off streets and turning its square into a bazaar of arts and crafts, costumed characters, palm readers and traveling merchants. Families spend the day touring museums and the House of Seven Gables, while teenagers pose for photos in front of stone memorials—eerie burial grounds where those accused of witchcraft were hanged, burned, or, in some cases, pressed to death. It is wholesome, educational fun for people of all ages.
That is until Halloween night, when the true horror reveals itself: thousands of screaming Massholes descending upon the town, spilling out of truck beds, foaming at the mouth, howling at the moon, pissing in the streets. Parked cars line the highways for miles. Nomadic gangs of mutilated corpses and half-naked nurses walk along breakdown lanes. Camaros and Mustangs cruise slowly by, blaring heavy metal music and leaving trails of menthol cigarettes and marijuana smoke. Paddy wagon doors slam shut and police sirens wail. The residents of this normally quiet town go into lockdown. Even the ghosts are horrified.
There were four of us that night, a Halloween double date: me as Batman; Susannah as a vampire; Eric as Alex from A Clockwork Orange; and his girlfriend, Caitlin, a geisha. Salem is typically a forty-minute drive from Boston, but traffic slowed to a crawl once we exited off the main interstate. By the time we reached the neighboring town of Swampscott we couldn’t get above five miles per hour. Finally, after an hour and a half in the car, we parked along route 1A, two miles outside the city, and started walking.
The walk started out enjoyable and leisurely, but after a while the laughter and conversation tapered and we grew bitter and purposeful. We spoke only when complaining. The latex leggings had chafed my inner thighs, forcing me to walk bow-legged. Eric had to piss, but didn’t want to go on the side of the highway lest he draw attention. Caitlin’s geisha makeup had hardened and was starting to crack into hideous lines. Susannah felt light-headed, swerving as she tried to keep up the pace. Her face was severe, the way a vampire might look when taking a calculus exam.
An hour later we arrived in Salem center, tired and crabby, looking for a bar called “Bleachers”—a recommendation from one of Caitlin’s classmates at Salem State. Once we found it we understood the appeal; it was apparently the only open bar in Salem, judging from the stream of people that stretched from the door all the way around three city blocks: zombies, rock stars, sadomasochists, superheroes, cowboys, evil clowns, plus any tragic pop culture figures from the mid-90s, tastelessly put on display. It looked like a line of dead people, waiting to get into the afterlife. Either that or an open casting call for the Universal Studios theme park.
We got in line behind The Incredible Hulk and his girlfriend, who could have been either Pocahontas or Princess Leia. The Hulk was perfect: massively built, shirtless, ripped pants, his entire body painted green. He stood intently with his arms folded, frequently standing up on his tiptoes to gauge the line’s progress. In front of him was a rowdy group of young men that sounded like North Shore townies. Two of them weren’t even in costume, unless they were dressed as Limp Bizkit. The other two, however, were creative: one was wrapped in a full-body condom, with a hole for his face; the other had a plain white sheet stretched out around him, held firm by what looked like a network of sticks underneath. There was a large brown and yellow paint smear on the sheet. He was asked what the costume was at least forty times, to which he’d gleefully respond: “I’m a shit stain!” followed by the same obnoxious laugh.
The longer we waited, the louder and more unruly the crowd got. The group behind us started chanting “Bullshit! Bullshit!” They were dressed as hippies, which made things feel less like a costume party and more like an anti-war protest. A half hour would pass and we’d advance five feet. Susannah swayed back and forth. She didn’t look good, but it was hard to tell with all the vampire makeup. When I asked how she felt she just nodded and said nothing. She’d light a cigarette, take two drags and then let it fall from her fingers.
At one point a group of cheerleaders tried to cut the line, about fifty feet ahead of us. Four meatheads in blonde wigs, pleated skirts, saddle shoes and sweaters with iron-on W’s stretched across their tissue paper breasts. There was a lot of yelling, which escalated to pushing and shoving, and the cheerleaders were eventually denied access. People booed at the cheerleaders as they walked to the back of the line. “Fuck you, pussies!” the cheerleaders screamed back, jumping up and doing splits, thrusting middle fingers in the air.
After two hours the line started to move. It was midnight. The bar’s front door was in sight. We trudged forward like beaten-down refugees under the blazing sun, taking half steps as though our ankles were chained together. By this time the roar of the crowd had gone silent; all we heard was the thump of bass and the muted hoots and hollers from inside the bar, that and the shuffle of feet and the soft cries of despair that came from among us. I looked behind me and saw two M&M’s. They held each other up like wounded soldiers. “We’re gonna make it,” the red one said to the yellow one.
At 12:30 we made it to the door. The bouncers asked us for our IDs. I watched Susannah as she searched her bag. “You okay, hon?” I said. She nodded. Her eyes were glazed over, but she found her license and handed it to the doorman.
“We’ll get you some water once we're inside. You’ll be okay.”
Then the bouncer asked for my ID. I reached for my wallet.
“Oh no,” I said. “It’s at home. The suit doesn’t have any pockets.”
No matter how much we pleaded, the bouncer wouldn’t let me in without an ID. I apologized to my friends, but really I wasn’t sorry. I was glad I forgot my license. I just wanted to go home.
“Great,” Eric said as we walked away from the chaos of the bar. “Now we have a nice hour and a half walk back to the car.”
“At least it’s nice out,” I said. Then I heard my name, followed by a thud. We turned and saw Susannah lying face down in the street.
I ran to her and turned her on her back, holding her head up. She came to, and Eric and I helped her to her feet. “I’m okay,” she said. “I just need some water. I haven’t ate anything all day.”
“Danny, we should get her to the hospital,” Caitlin said.
“No, she’ll be fine. There’s gotta be a pizza place around here where we can get her some food.”
“Are you serious? She just fainted! She needs medical attention!” Caitlin screamed at me, her geisha makeup cracking and peeling off her face.
“Susannah, do you want to go to the hospital?” I said.
She shook her head.
“Of course she’s going to say no,” Caitlin said. “No one wants to go to the hospital. Let’s just get her there!”
“How?” I said, now screaming back. “What am I supposed to do? Look where we are right now!”
Then we heard gagging and purging. Susannah was bent over the sidewalk, vomiting.
“Oh shit,” I said, clutching the forehead of my Batman mask. I looked around for help. Across the town square was an ambulance, parked on the side of the street, its lights off.
I looked back at Susannah. She lied down onto the sidewalk and closed her eyes.
“Wait,” I said. I ran to her and picked her up in my arms. She was a petite girl and easy to carry. I turned and ran toward the ambulance, the Batman cape flying out behind me. “I’ve got you,” I said. “You’re gonna be okay.”
People turned and watched as I ran through the center of town, Susannah in my arms. Some of the onlookers cheered. “There he is,” I heard one voice say. “There’s the Batman.”
“We need to get her to the hospital,” I shouted through the ambulance’s driver’s side window. “Fast.” The EMT put down his meatball sub and helped me get Susannah onto a gurney and into the back of the ambulance. “She fainted, and then she threw up a couple times,” I told him. “I think she’s dehydrated.” He hooked her up to an IV. Caitlin and Eric met us at the tailgate. We all climbed in. The EMT hit the flashers, and we were off to North Shore Medical Center.
From that point on, the details are hazy. I remember the three of us in the emergency room waiting area—Batman, a geisha, and Alex from A Clockwork Orange, all sitting on a bench, drinking soda and eating potato chips that we bought from a vending machine. I remember the gunshot victim that was wheeled past us. I remember how the doctors kept Susannah overnight for observation, but in the end it was simple dehydration; maybe not simple, but certainly the best possible scenario, and curable with some intravenous fluids and a couple hospital meals.
And I remember finally taking my mask off when I got home, sitting on the edge of my bed, the same bed I slept in as a child, and thinking to myself: my job is done here.
* * * *
Eighteen years later I returned to Salem, this time without the Batman suit. There were four of us, another Halloween double date, but a new cast of characters: older, grayer, and half of us sober. We had lunch at a nice Italian place and then we strolled through the town square, nodding at costumed pirates, admiring hay sculptures that were “generously on loan” from local artists, and browsing through the wares of the many street vendors.
At one point someone suggested we get psychic readings, which are available every fifty feet or so. I don’t really subscribe to any of that stuff, but for thirty-five bucks a pop, it seemed like harmless fun, just another ride at this amusement park. We stopped at a place that offered tarot cards and palm readings. It looked less like a psychic parlor and more like the DMV: a big room with boring ceiling lights and partitions of velvet rope. No ambience, no crystal balls, no withered old ladies with blind eyes. Just a bunch of tables lined up next to each other, like the first round of a chess tournament. We walked up to the cashier, paid the fee and received a ticket—the standard kind of ticket you’d find at a state fair or the VFW’s annual spaghetti dinner.
“Just have a seat and we’ll call your number,” we were informed by a woman with pink hair and multiple nose rings.
We sat and waited. Dylan was the first to get his number called. He sat down at a table across from the Reverend Paul, the legendary healer and mystic, according to his bio, which I read on the back of a “10%-Off” coupon. Amanda and I were scheduled to go next, with different psychics.
Fifteen minutes later Dylan walked back to us. “It was pretty good,” he beamed. “I’m gonna live ‘til I’m eighty-six, and I’ll have my hair until my fifties.” In spite of his natural skepticism about most things, he seemed perfectly willing to accept this parapsychological prognosis.
Amanda’s number was called, but mine was not. While she met with her psychic at table six, I approached the pink-haired girl about my missing number.
“Oh, um, I think we double-booked you,” she said. “Sorry. I can get you an appointment with Lady Harza in…thirty minutes? Does that work?”
I get aggravated when my doctor’s office keeps me waiting, and that concerns my present-day health. “I’ll just take a refund,” I said, skipping the irritated stage and going right to solution mode.
The woman gave me my thirty-five bucks back and I returned to the bench to sit with Dylan and his girlfriend, Kelli, while Amanda met with her psychic. Dylan told us more about his reading: “It was okay. Reverend Paul said I had just met the woman who I’d be with for the rest of my life, and that we might have a boy…” Kelli blushed. Dylan continued. “He said that I’m usually a right-brained person but I have left-brain tendencies…um, what else…he said I’ll have a medical situation in my mid-fifties, but as long as I’m proactive about it I’ll be okay, and he said when I die it will be on my own terms, that I’ll just fade away.”
“Nice,” I said, as I watched Amanda get her reading. Her psychic was young and obese. She didn’t look like a fortune-teller; she looked like she’d be better suited behind the register of a Walmart, or in a hospital waiting room, demanding another Oxycontin prescription for her chronic gout. Amanda seemed enrapt, though. She nodded her head persistently. Towards the end of her reading, however, her head remained still.
When her fifteen minutes was up she rejoined us at the bench. “How’d it go?” I asked.
She shook her head slowly. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “Actually, I don’t feel that well. I think I just need to go home.”
"What," I said. "That idiot gave you a bad future?"
“Don’t believe any of that crap,” Dylan said. “You could walk across the street and get another reading, and you’ll get a completely different story.”
This didn’t seem to help. “No, it’s fine. Everything’s fine. I just…don’t feel that well. Sorry. But we should go.”
We cut the afternoon short, bid our friends farewell and walked to the municipal parking lot. When we got back into my Jeep, I turned to her: “Seriously, Amanda. What the hell happened back there? That’s all a crock of shit, you know, whatever she told you.”
Amanda stared straight ahead. “I guess we’ll just wait and see.”
She didn’t speak at all on the way home. The next day she felt better, but to this day she refuses to tell me what the psychic said.
She says it’s better if I don’t know.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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