On the downtown C-train one recent Thursday night, my glance fell upon a plump woman with long, frizzy hair that was dyed raspberry-jam red. She looked like a witch, in a black dress that went down to the floor, and a matching coat with ruffled cuffs made of silky, leopard-print fabric that cascaded out from the end of her sleeves. Around her neck, she wore a choker with a big round cardboard cutout dangling from the center with a picture of a bloody, naked body, drawn as a tangle of crooked limbs. She wasn’t in a costume; Halloween was still a month away.
But this is New York, after all, where strangeness is ordinary. As the last days of October approached, Halloween started creeping up on the city—with skeleton heads peeking out from fifth-floor windows and pumpkins lined up expectantly outside bodegas—but it was nothing transformative.
Since I first came to New York City, a place where I could find just about anything I wanted, I've felt unsatisfied by how it does Halloween. Earlier that morning, I had received an email with the subject line, “Your Guide to the Apocalypse.” It was sent from Webster Hall, a nightclub and concert venue in downtown Manhattan that annually hosts Halloween-themed events. One of them, called "Webster Hell," advertises the following spectacle:
At the stroke of midnight, with flames blazing, an innocent virgin is picked from the crowd. Stripped of her clothing and dignity, the crowd watches as she is ritualistically sacrificed on a massive pentagram hung 40 feet in the air.
Hell indeed—not to mention the line to get in, where a row of teetering Richard Nixons and well-heeled nurses might wait for an hour.
The affair would have been an after-party for the famous Village Halloween parade, now in its 39th year. More than two million people were expected to attend, and another million would watch the parade on television—that is, before Hurricane Sandy hit. Winds howled through the city, like ghosts. The streets were eerily silent, and the subways emptied. Real fears usurped abstract ones: carved pumpkins were left rotted outside evacuated brownstones, as neighborhoods were struck black, in total darkness. A friend of mine, watching the weather report, said, "This is the apocalypse."
As the clouds started to clear and our candles faded, the announcement came that, for the first time in its history, the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management and the NYPD would be canceling the parade (Mayor Bloomberg did later leave open the possibility of rescheduling, but we'll see). Park Slope’s annual Halloween parade was called off, too.
People dressed up as zombies place orders in a bar during an event in New York. (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)
Upon hearing the news, I recalled one of my first Halloweens in New York, when I dutifully showed up at the Village Parade with the intention of observing from the sidelines. But this was impossible: the streets were teeming with ghouls, belligerent and sweaty, filling the neighborhood as though it were a political rally: a thousand arms waving furiously at the sky. It was my mistake—after all, in a city, one can never merely be a spectator—you’re always a participant, one way or another. I was hardly able to make it out of the subway station, and when I finally reached the surface, was swept up into the mob, where I was trampled on by a rotund Tooth Fairy whose belly shirt revealed his hairy chest. I felt lost in the throng—as one often does in New York—but then he pointed his wand at me and smiled, and I couldn’t deny his odd charm. I wonder now if that Tooth Fairy is without electricity, or if the hurricane’s gusts lifted him into the air by his fairy wings, like a cotton witch that went flying by 14th Street.
On Tuesday, after waking up in the dim light of my friend’s West Village apartment, we wandered up toward Herald Square, on the hunt for pizza and working power outlets. We passed by fallen trees—cracked and gnarled like a goblin’s fingers—and the pop-up Halloween costume shops that were shuttered—dismal and pointless. On one storefront after the next, there were giant X’s marked in tape, to prevent the glass from shattering in the storm; on that morning, they could have been warnings to fend off passing trick-or-treaters.
That night, Mayor Bloomberg said at his press briefing, "Most streets in the city will be safe tomorrow, but some may not be. And so we encourage children and adults to enjoy Halloween, but use good judgment and be careful. Particularly in those areas where there aren't any lights, hold on to your children's hands because cars might not see the children."
Even during a typical October, Halloween in the city is, as I have come to know it, Halloween grown-up. The holiday is a celebration of fright, but it’s also about controlling it, rendering it cute and tidy and accessible on a set-aside occasion, with treats. In New York, there are puppy costume contests, hacker jack-o-lantern workshops, and horror movie nights. But the holiday is fragmented by age and place. I grew up in the suburbs, where young children are, adorably, turned into craft-projects; then one graduates to an age when you can roam the streets as part of a candy-collecting harem, led by one kid’s mom; eventually, you are free to wander without supervision, guided by those snap-to-light glowsticks that hang around the neck.
This may be replicated in cities full of apartment buildings, but it’s just not the same, as Calvin Trillin once observed while planning Halloween with his daughters:
I would find trick-or-treating in an upper-East Side high rise an experience more bizarre than any of my costumes. ‘Who shall I say is calling?’ I can imagine the doorman saying as he stares icily at Sarah in her Winnie-the-Pooh costume, and at Abigail pretending rather successfully to be a kangaroo, and finally at me. I happen to be wearing a mask that has the unfortunate tendency to bring to people’s minds any buried fears they may have about axe murderers.
More recently, Louis C.K. went trick-or-treating for a Halloween episode on the second season of his show. As night falls, an older crowd brushes past, and he tells his daughters they’ve got to head home. From the shadows, around the corner, a pale-faced man jumps out and screams at the girls. "Thanks a lot, you asshole!" Louie calls after him. Then they’re followed by two monsters: a green man, and another called "Giant," with gashes painted on his face; they accost Louie and his children, and he stands frozen, until his younger daughter shouts, "Halloween’s for fun! You’re supposed to have a nice time!" Louie smashes the storefront window behind them, and the monsters flee while he waits for the police. Even as the danger of the city threatens, Louie’s daughter insists, demands that Halloween retain its happy innocence. And it does, in a sense, when her father is made into a superhero, bravely rescuing them from the villains on the street. But, sitting beside the shattered window glass, their holiday is broken, whether the girls understand it yet or not. The fear is still there, because it’s real; what can make a city menacing on Halloween is that there is no mask to tear off.
This year, because of the storm, I see the city on Halloween as a particularly eerie place, haunted by what it always has been, and what I wish it were. This time around, New York is transformed—wilted and dispirited. Back home in Brooklyn now, I will not be able to ride the subway into Manhattan for any festivities; I hope to at least make it to the store for candy bars. I would have been content to join the packs of children who march—in the way most familiar to me—knocking door-to-door for a glimpse inside each brownstone and descending into a sugar-induced coma. But I’ll be waiting inside with treats in my lap, withdrawn from the city as it’s lit up by the bravely devilish, and a few flickering jack-o-lanterns.
Top image: People dressed up as zombies exit the subway in New York, pre-Sandy. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)