When I grew up, Halloween was a big deal. I never had a fancy costume, but my mom let me buy a new plastic mask at the dime store each year. I carried my candy in a big plastic jack o’lantern that had a smiley face on one side and a frowny face on the other.
The worst Halloween I ever had was the night my pony escaped. After getting home late from work, my dad had to drop everything to drive out to the farm where we kept him to get him back in the fence. There was no trick-or-treating with my friends that night. (And before you think you I was a spoiled little girl, bear in mind that I saved $25 in pennies, answered a farmer’s ad on Swap and Shop, and arranged for Jerry to be delivered in the back of a ton truck to my grandparent’s house all by myself. I was a determined child. I just didn’t realize then what a sacrifice my father made for me. I realize now.)
Because I was determined, I couldn’t imagine a Halloween without trick or treating, so I found a paper grocery bag, cut out eyes and a mouth, and visited the two neighbors to the left and right of Mom and Pa Bell’s house, which was across the highway from Jerry’s barn. For me, Halloween was never about the candy. I just liked the eerie feeling of the night. I liked the stories. But back then the monsters never really showed up, and there was something cozy about feeling scared and secure at the same time. Now the monsters are much more prevalent. If you don’t believe me, just watch the evening news.
Every Halloween my dad and I picked out a pumpkin, and as I got older, I would draw a face on it and carve it myself. I can still remember laying a newspaper on the rug and scooping out the pumpkin’s insides. Ewww. It was kind of gross and kind of fun at the same time.
Then I would set the pumpkin on our front porch and light a candle to place inside. I never wanted the night to end. I stayed up as late as I could, and my mom would carry the pumpkin from the front porch and put it near my bed for the glow and pumpkin aroma to lull me to sleep. I hated waking up to November 1 because I knew I’d have to wait another year to tell spooky stories and to look for ghosts.
Ghosts have always been my guilty pleasure.
I am an adamant believer in the spirit world, but I don’t believe ghosts are the spirits of the deceased. I used to worry that my ghost stories would offend fellow believers, but then I met Charles K. Wolfe, who was my English professor at MTSU. Thanks to Dr. Wolfe, I realized my love for ghosts was actually my love for storytelling and folklore. He encouraged me to embrace my own family folklore and oral tradition, and as a result, I wrote my first published article while a student in his folklore class. Many years later my story made its way into The Tennessee Folklore Sampler.
When I think about Halloween, I can’t help but think about my mom. Her birthday fell the day before. I always made a point to find her a fun Halloween birthday card because I knew it made her happy, or maybe it just made me happy. I credit my mom for turning me on to storytelling. She and I used to stay up late talking about the Bell Witch, and then she would knock on my bedroom wall when I went to bed later that night. She had a bit of mischief about her, but the joke was on her because I usually ended up wide awake in parents’ bed listening for the slightest noise.
Today I still collect stories—folklore, urban legends, ghost stories, whatever you wish to call them. And I ask my students to collect them. Stories ignite our creativity, preserve our family heritage, and serve as means of social control. Sociologists and folklorists tell us that “scary” stories help keep wayward teenagers in line and curious children from wandering away. Remember what happened to Hansel and Gretal!
In a few hours, I will be on the road to research for my manuscript Crossroads. It’s a dark, perhaps stormy night, and I’ll leave it up to you to guess where I’m headed. You’ll have to check the next blog to find out the details. Until then, happy storytelling.