The Original Social Network

I miss Halloween.

Halloween has lost some of its sense of community.

Sure, it’s still on the calendar. But now it’s been regulated to just another holiday punctuating a season with a marketing campaign that starts around Labor Day and sells off clearance bags of candy corn before Columbus Day.

Back when thin, plastic masks sealed to your face with the heat of your breath instead of staying in place with the help of the cheap elastic stapled straps, Halloween was more than an excuse to buy an industrial bag of Snickers and scarf half of them down before the end of the month–it was the original social network.

Technically, my Ohio hometown is not a town, but an unincorporated community. What we lack in size, we make up for in spirit.

The joke when telling city folk how to find the town is that if you blink your eyes between the top and bottom of the hill going east on U.S. Route 36, you’ll miss it.

When I was growing up, we didn’t have much crime–any, really, unless you counted teenage boys trying to steal beer from the pool hall/grocery store, worms from the bait shop/candy store or cigarettes from their parents.

On the social scale, Halloween (most always celebrated on October 31, except for Sundays) ranked a little higher than family reunions, but not quite as high as the high school Homecoming.

Everyone in town played a part, whether from their porch, walking hand in hand with little ones, or in groups of friends in costume.

Candy in your orange plastic jack-o-lantern (or your mom’s least favorite pillow case, if she didn’t make it to the Big N in time for the plastic pumpkins), wasn’t a guarantee; it was a friend request to join your network.

Adults wanted details that grew more personal as we kids grew older: How were your parents? Were you doing well in school? Were you planning to be the angel/wiseman/baby Jesus in the church Christmas play? How many Girl Scout cookies did you sell? Did your 4-H project do well at the county fair? Are you still dating that boy?

Often, the better your answer, the better your candy haul. Grunts, one-word responses and impatient replies were unheard of.

These adults were our relatives, schoolmates and friends of our parents, former babysitters our parents had employed to babysit us who now employed us to babysit their own children, people who gave us summer jobs mowing grass, pulling weeds, tutoring their kids in math and reading.

Our honest responses kept family and friends in the loop–a sort of house-by-house status update, no email necessary–and fueled the town gossips for weeks.

We didn’t need camera phones or texts to tell us who was in what costume, because all that mattered was the here and now of the moment.

Mom took photos, of course, like on every holiday, but if Grandma had forgotten to refill the Polaroid, we had to wait a few weeks for the circle of disc film to fill up with other events: the school play, band concerts, pictures of Mom’s amazing carrot cake at Thanksgiving.

When those photos came back, we did share them on our wall–the original wood-paneled wall Dad had installed when he built the house from his own blueprints.

The adult perspective of Halloween does have an advantage or two over the kid version. We can buy our own bags of candy and not have to beg for our treats (and eat as much as we like), our parents won’t take the flashlight from under our covers when we’re reading scary stories after dark, and we aren’t forced into costumes we know are a bad idea. (Sorry, Mom. Dopey Dwarf may have been cute to you, but the overalls and giant, plastic ears got me teased for months.)

But social networking on Halloween (or, more appropriately, the city-ordained October evening designated as Beggar’s Night) is now limited to my neighbors.

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