A while back, my kids and I attended my town's annual Halloween Parade and Costume Contest. I was the Cat in the Hat, my son was Sam I Am, and my girls were Things 1 and 2. The judges were roaming anonymously among us, so I approached anyone holding a clipboard and mugged like a politician, casually tossing Thing 2 from arm to arm for appealing effect.
Sure enough, we won a $50 savings bond that by this time could be worth as much as $32.75. But standing proudly onstage next to an 8 year-old boy squirting blood from his eyeballs and a twelve year bloody zombie bride, I thought, "Whatever happened to pirates and hobos?"
My favorite personal Halloween outfit was a 1976 Superman costume -- basically a shapeless plastic body apron and short vinyl cape. It had none of the super-sculpted muscles or soft cloth you see in every Superman costume now, even the ones for toddlers and pets.
My costume also inexplicably came with a red Lone Ranger-style plastic mask. I wore it gamely, because what was a 1970's Halloween costume without some sharp piece of plastic cutting painfully into your skin?
But kids' costumes in modern times have gone from sickly sweet to just plain sick. A walk down the dripping, splattered, fake blood-soaked Halloween aisle of your favorite drugstore proves the point: Gore again wins the popular vote.
When I went online to find kids' costumes, I found life-like swords and machetes, clear masks that filled up with blood, and a wide range of disembodied heads and severed limbs. I saw a "zombie doctor" costume with "PVC rotting chest, pants with rotted knee, zombie mask, surgical mask, surgical cap, and latex gloves" that came in size 4-6!
So where's the Texas Chainsaw Massacre costume for toddlers, I wondered. Isn't Leatherface more or less Bob the Builder with an attitude?
Just as puzzling: Many costumes for little children are based on movies the Motion Picture Association says "may be inappropriate for children under 13" -- Wiggles-free flicks like Star Wars III, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Incredible Hulk, and Transformers.
There's an even a "Michael Myers" costume for sizes 8-10. Not Mike Myers, the goofy Canadian slapsticker, but Michael Myers, the sadistic serial killer of Halloween. Putting an R rating on that movie is like putting a Surgeon General's warning on a hand grenade.
I have nothing against horror -- in fact, I love it. In 1980, my mother, a devout fan of the genre, made one of the most dubious parenting decisions since Joan Crawford shared with her little girl a certain distaste for dry-cleaning hangers. She brought her two young children to see The Shining. My brother and I begged to see it, then screamed and hid our faces like kids trapped in a hell-bent roller coaster. Escape from Witch Mountain this was not.
Scarred by that experience, I could have grown into the kind of kid other children hide their pets from, but I simply inherited my mother's taste for good scares. I knew I was hooked when, as a movie usher in 1984, I was so mesmerized by the new Wes Craven film A Nightmare on Elm Street that I volunteered for ticket-ripping duty just to be close to the poster.
Around this time last year, my girlfriend and I went to see the 7:45 pm showing of Rob Zombie's gory remake of Halloween. While the movie was predictably awash in blood, sex and psychosis, the most disturbing part of the experience was that we were sharing the theater with children.
In our Sunday night show, we counted at least half a dozen kids from different families, all clearly under 12. One looked to be no older than 7. (I presume their parents rejected the 10 pm show because we all know it's bad to keep kids up that late.) I later wrote an open letter to Rob himself about it.
During the movie, these kids cheered and giggled with every violent slash and thrust. Later, they chatted with their parents about their favorite maniacal moments. "The explicit sex scene or the graphic disembowelment -- what do you think, son?"
Looking at the kids, you might convince yourself they were unaffected, but children are sponges. Any stimuli received by their growing brains counts as learning. And this is some savage stimuli.
When my son came home one day expressing enthusiasm for a series of spooky kid stories called Goosebumps, I was thrilled.
"I really enjoy horror fiction," he said in his "I'm smart, see?" voice.
But this doesn't mean I'm buying him the Hostel III "mangled tourist" costume anytime soon. He's better off carving pumpkins with dull knives, gathering gobs of candy, and pulling Halloween inspiration more from R.L. Stine and J.K. Rowling than from my glorious nightmares.
That said, I am clearing room in my 2016 event calendar for some appropriate father-son fright night bonding if he's game. The Grudge 8? The Peoria Witch Project? The Hills Have Ears, Too? Bring it on.