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The ghost of Halloween past

While wandering around Queen Elizabeth Park late on Tuesday afternoon trying to surreptitiously take photographs of kids in cute Halloween costumes for the Times-Age without coming across as a distinctly non-supernatural kind of creep, it occurred to me that Masterton District Council’s elaborate event is one of the more obvious signs of local evolution that I’ve noticed since returning to the district after 26 years away.

[And yes, a belated trigger warning to all the editorial purists out there, but this column is going to unavoidably involve repeated recourse to a plethora of personal pronouns, I’m afraid.]

Although I was only lurking around Halloween Island for 30 or so minutes of the three-hour spookfest, the park was already crawling with hundreds of children and caregivers in search of some light scares and refreshments, along with a horde of council staff who were well and truly getting into the spirit[s] of the occasion.

By all accounts, the entire event was a screaming success, so kudos to the council for organising it with such aplomb. Along with the QEII’s stonking playground and spectacular skatepark, it’s surely evidence of a council continuing to put its mind to catering to the district’s young people in a way that wasn’t nearly as evident way back when I was a whippersnapper growing up in Wairarapa [although, to be fair, we were probably more capable of making our own fun back then – and given the space to do it].

Certainly, my childhood memories of Halloween in Masterton are rather different.

Although it would be several decades before it was observed in any semi-official way, there was a dawning awareness of the existence of Halloween as a cultural phenomenon that was practised elsewhere, thanks largely – in my case, anyway – to it featuring in a number of the works made available to primary school kids as part of the Scholastic Books programme [which in hindsight was obviously yet another vehicle for American cultural imperialism].

But what ultimately inspired my brother, a few friends, and I to try throwing on some sheets and hitting the neighbourhood streets in search of free sweets in the spring of 1978 was an episode of ‘CHiPs’.

For those who came in late, this TV series was about the adventures of officers Frank ‘Ponch’ Poncherello and Jon Baker of the Californian Highway Patrol, not a cooking show dedicated to deep-fried potato sticks, and the instalment in question featured our heroes “keeping the streets safe for trick-or-treaters, searching a haunted house for a runaway boy, foiling a ghoulish getaway, and nabbing a candy bag snatcher”.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that our attempt to scare up a free sugar rush was an exercise in almost complete futility, with our mother [pretending not to recognise us] the only person to open the door prepared to dole out delicious snacks.

The owners of every other house we bowled up to simply didn’t know what the hell was going on, although one did – after we stopped shrieking “trick or treat” and explained what this strange foreign custom was all about – give us an apple each.

I trust all the youngsters who tried it on this year [ahem] feared better.

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