Chainsaw Maniac [Read This Free]

A Halloween Good Guy

By Diana Braskich

Growing up, I did not take Halloween lightly. It was not a minor occasion. It was an event, and one to be celebrated with gusto.

I recall my childhood home as extravagantly decorated, inside and out, a lavish display unmatched anywhere in the neighborhood. The family pictures, however, prove that memory exaggerates, and what is legendary in my mind was more commonplace in reality.

Our decorations may have been simple, but they were fun. I distinctly remember, when I was quite small, having an entire collection of fuzzy black kittens plastered across my bedroom closet. The cats were depicted wearing witches’ hats and cavorting with friendly pumpkins, perfect for a small girl’s bedroom. They were made of cardboard, but the kittens’ fur was textured somehow and felt like velvet.

We had witch- and ghost-shaped candles displayed in our living room, and a spooky cardboard haunted house that somehow lasted more than a decade before collapsing upon itself. We had giant scarecrow window hangings as well, with posable arms and legs. At least once a season these would come crashing down unexpectedly, terrifying our poor cat right out of the room.

Our outside décor, though meant to be stationary, tended to rove about the neighborhood, looking for trouble. The frequent gale force winds of a northern Idaho autumn often sent our ghostly windsocks cascading down the driveway and across the sidewalk. I remember many times having to pursue one on foot, only for it to escape down the road into oblivion.

We’d stuff our giant pumpkin bags with newspaper instead of leaves, so they could be used year after year, and even those would occasionally succumb to the winds and go rolling across the yard. We’d find them under neighbors’ porches or in their shrubbery.

Aside from bedecking our house for the season, we always had a lot of Halloween activities. My birthday falls near the end of October, and I remember several times that its celebration mutated into a de facto Halloween party. I was heartbroken at the age of four when I failed to win at “Pin the Nose on the Jack-o’-Lantern,” and I remember broom-shaped cakes and Halloween piñatas on our back porch.

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Halloween noir. Photo by Atom P.
Happy Halloween theme
The author as a rabbit at age five. Courtesy Diana Braskich.
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A fearsome Halloween display. Christian Johan Stefanescu photo.
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Diana's daughter Lila as a character from Frozen.
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A couple of classic Halloween troublemakers. Jacinta Lluch Valero photo.
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Lila as Catwoman. Diana Braskich photo.
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Chainsaw maniac. Rob Briscoe photo.
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Lila as T-Rex. Diana Braskich photo.
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Young Diana as Tinkerbell and her mom, Kathy Braskich, as the devil. Courtesy of Diana Braskich.
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If Halloween fell on a weekday, we’d celebrate at school as well. We’d have a day full of themed crafts, games, and snacks that would culminate in a costume parade. Our teachers would take us to visit an assisted living community near our campus. We’d march proudly down the road in our costumes, collecting compliments and smiles from every senior citizen we encountered.

Costume choice on these occasions was very important. In kindergarten I made the mistake of dressing as Bat Girl, which was apparently a controversial selection. I took no end of grief from the boys in my class because “girls weren’t supposed to like Batman.” (Fortunately, casual superhero sexism has abated at least somewhat since then.)

The next year my troubles were of a more practical nature, as I’d chosen a Tinkerbell costume that was basically a ballet tutu, which was insufficient for the subarctic temperatures we experienced that year. I can still feel my heart burning with resentment after my first-grade teacher forced me to don a coat for recess and cover up my beautiful wings.

Trick-or-treating meant canvassing numerous locales to maximize our candy-collecting potential. We’d start downtown by the resort, where all the shops and businesses would welcome us with enticing buckets of treats just inside their entryways. The parents of Tia Walker, a dear friend of mine, owned a travel agency then called Ace Travel in the heart of downtown Coeur d’Alene, which was our home base. I always felt so superior to the other kids traipsing up and down the street, as I was no mere tourist downtown. I was in with the right people.

Once we’d cleaned out all the shops on Sherman Avenue, I would part ways with my friend and reunite with the girls from my block to conquer our home base.

Any trick-or-treater who came to my house had to face down my father, a trickster of the highest order. His antics on Halloween were not exclusive to manning the front door, but that was where he shined. His pièce de résistance was the year he dressed up as the patriarch from the ‘90s TV show Dinosaurs. If you didn’t experience the show at the time, I’m not sure I can explain the bizarre pop culture phenomenon it represented. I don’t know what force caused my generation to lose our minds over a family of working-class dinosaur puppets, but we did. The baby dino would hit the dad in the head with a frying pan, scream, “Not the Momma,” and all of America laughed.

One Halloween, my father donned a red flannel shirt, a hard hat, and a dinosaur mask—an imperfect doppelgänger of the father in the show. He perched himself atop one of our flower boxes by the front door, with a giant stuffed dragon on the adjacent one. He lay in wait, perfectly still, until a trick-or-treater arrived. Many hesitated at the bottom of the steps, whispering to each other, trying to discern if they were facing a stuffed animal or a crazy man in a mask. When they eventually braved the ascent to our front door, they’d relax when nothing moved. My father would wait until they passed him and rang the bell. Then he would hit himself in the head with a frying pan and yell, “Not the Momma!” at the top of his lungs. He scared one teenaged girl so badly she ran into the road crying.

What the other houses in the neighborhood lacked in dramatic flair they made up for in warmth. All of my friends’ parents would exclaim over our costumes, and our pillowcases would soon be overflowing with every kind of treat imaginable. We’d then climb into the car, and Mom would drive us for one final excursion to the mall. It was always the last stop of the evening, when it had grown too dark and cold to go door-to-door.

As much fun as trick-or-treating was, it was not the highlight of my Halloweens. We were frequenters of local haunted houses, and for several years the community playhouse would convert its stage and auditorium into a first-rate scare fest. Things would feel off-kilter from the start, as we would enter the auditorium from the exterior instead of the usual side entrance. I remember being led up the back steps and entering from the top of the hall, back by the sound booth, just behind where the audience would sit.

The seats were draped with the spooky remnants of an audience interrupted, with overturned popcorn buckets and torn clothes left behind. I think actors lurked in the seats to jump out and scare us, but don’t remember the details enough to describe them. I just remember the disorienting feeling of descent, and the mounting trepidation as we approached the curtain and the stage.

One year I liked it so much, I asked my grandmother to take me back without my parents. There was a chainsaw maniac in the basement that year, and I seem to remember him jumping out of the wall at us. They had built a set piece for him, and the ground we walked upon was slanted and askew, so that you not only had to contend with a homicidal lunatic bearing down at you with a deadly weapon, but also a disorienting walk across unsteady ground.

I had loved it the first time, but on the second expedition with my grandmother, I somehow lost my shoe. I remember being terrified at my sudden lack of mobility, trapped with a far-too-realistic murderer, wanting to run but refusing because I simply could not abandon my footwear. I remember my poor grandmother, struggling to hear me over the racket of power tools, bewildered by my sudden tear-filled entreaties for assistance.

We hunted in vain, utterly confused about how we could lose a shoe in such a small and empty space. Finally, the chainsaw-wielder took pity on us, turned off his prop, and helped us locate my wayward sneaker, which we finally did, wedged beneath the cracks of the makeshift floor. At the time, I was deeply embarrassed, but now when I picture the chainsaw man confusedly powering down his blades and helping the bewildered old woman and her hysterical grandchild to dismantle his carefully constructed set, I cannot help but laugh.

My daughter, despite having parents who enjoy Halloween, has yet to have a truly spectacular season. On her first trick-or-treating, bedecked as Princess Elsa with her cousin Princess Anna by her side, we were forced to turn back when the large crowd at the mall induced tears in our young charges.

The next year we started strong, with my daughter in full T-Rex regalia, accompanied by her father, who was dressed to the nines as the Predator. We soon discovered that their masks restricted their vision so much I had to lead the two of them up each set of steps. They looked much less fierce being escorted door-to-door by a lowly human in devil’s horns. Finally, Daddy removed his mask and carried his weary dinosaur from house to house, while I carried what appeared to be the Predator’s severed head all around the neighborhood.

Last year, our own little Catwoman tried to parade down her grandmother’s street in high heels, wielding her whip and a candy bucket shaped like a pumpkin. We realized too late that her five-year-old feet were not up to such a lengthy excursion in uncomfortable shoes. Her cousin, the Wise Wizard, complicated things further by refusing to go up to anyone’s door and continuously stopping to search her bag for the sole non-chocolate treat at the bottom of her cache.

I hope this year to give my daughter a Halloween experience like those I had as a child. I’ll take her to a kid-friendly haunted house, and let her help me decorate her room as my mother once helped me decorate mine. We’ll try to pick a costume that allows for easy travel, is warm enough to withstand the Idaho cold, and doesn’t obstruct her vision or her movement.

Above all else, we’ll make sure not to lose any shoes.

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