MARSHFIELD, MASS. — It was October 1970, a time when the parents in our neighborhood were careful to shield their very young children from the horrors of a televised war. Eager for a diversion of their own, the parents giddily turned their focus toward a more innocent, homespun kind of terror.
It all began with whispers of a monster on the loose. The week before Halloween, the mothers in our neighborhood huddled over coffee cups in my mom's kitchen, weighing the risks of trick-or-treating. We played at their feet, churning Matchboxes over cookie-crumb gravel, racing along the linoleum roadway.
But our ears pricked when they spoke of the monster, our playful shrieks squelched in our throats. The drumbeat of our young hearts skipped in unison as we listened to snatches of their hushed conversation: escaped from the mental hospital; spotted behind the Finns' house; a giant creature with sallow green skin and knotty bolts jutting from his neck; enormous, black boots. My mother, afraid to let us venture into the uncertain darkness, offered to host Halloween at our house.
The night of All Hallows Eve, she outdid herself. Colored lights drizzled the handrail leading down to the basement. Cutouts of cheery skeletons, ghosts, and witches floated along drab cement walls. A record player swirled in a corner next to a stack of albums, pumping life into the dank corners. Across the room, a wooden tub held a pool of water brimming with glistening apples, some with quarters peeking through rosy skins. Best of all, a clothesline was strung between crepe-papered support poles, dangling doughnuts within easy reach of tippy-toes. Our dreary basement had been transformed into a Halloween carnival.
The neighborhood children soon arrived with mothers in tow. My brothers and I were disappointed my father had to work a night shift at the fire station. An enormous man, he'd have been comforting to have close while the monster prowled our neighborhood. But there was also comfort in numbers, and our basement was crowded with princesses, hobos, cowboys, and genies. Together, we were safe.
Too afraid to dunk my own face in the water, I watched as my oldest brother's friend, a strapping 8-year-old, chomped down on the apple I'd wanted - the one with the quarter.
It was then that I heard a crash from upstairs. I looked up at my mother - she had heard it too, and I watched as she exchanged a worried look with another woman. Boom! One of the mothers turned off the record player, there were anxious shushes as doughnuts and candy were quickly forgotten. We all stood stock still, though my hand sought the reassurance of my mother's. Boom, BOOM! Louder this time, and one of the mothers cried out that it had to be the monster. We were too frightened to move, but a chorus of whimpers began to echo off of the concrete walls.
Then a sound I knew well, the creak of the basement door opening slowly, slowly, filled my ears. It became hard to breathe. Still none of us could move, only watch, as first one enormous black boot, and then a second clumped onto the top stair. Another step and we could see black shredded pants clinging to legs too thick to be human. A pause and then his arms became visible, stretching forward as if grasping for something, someone.
The screams didn't begin in earnest until we could see his face. He stared straight ahead, his vacant eyes dark pits against green skin. Even from across the room I could see the bolts bulging from of his neck. He began a low moan.
The room erupted into hysteria. I clawed at my mother's thigh, and shrieked. I watched as two of my brothers, 8 and 5, flew past me and somehow catapulted up and out the basement window. Another brother ran for the wooden toy chest under the stairs. His eyes held mine as he slowly lowered the lid over his head. A tiny fairy near the bottom of the stairs stood staring at the giant as he descended the last step. Mothers ran to and fro trying in vain to gather children who struggled to escape into the night.
From somewhere far away I heard my father call my name. I braved another look at the monster. He was wearing a look of bewilderment, waving his arms, calling to us, pleading for calm. The monster's gaze settled on me and, again, he called my name.
For the next three days, I stayed near my mother in a bed she'd fashioned for me in the kitchen - I couldn't bear to be alone. One night a click of the door and a rush of cold air signaled my father's return from work. Though he begged, I could not talk nor look at him. Finally, as he crouched next to me, I took one look at his face, and threw up on his enormous black boots.
Each year as the wind snaps from the north and leaves swirl about my feet, my brothers and I reminisce about that day and wonder why those parents chose to do what they did. Now I think I understand. They were acting on their purity of heart to simply entertain us, to help us celebrate the season with a touch of fantastic magic. It never occurred to any of them that an imaginary monster could do such harm.
Surely it's a joke I would never play on my own young children. But then again, they and their friends, unlike the children in my long-ago neighborhood, haven't been shielded from the news where monsters lurk in airplanes and fly them into buildings. My children know of the goblins who dusted envelopes with their Anthrax trickery. And we've all come to know another generation sent to a battlefield in another war waged far away.
It makes me long for the simplicity of my childhood monsters.
• P. Amy MacKinnon is a writer and mother of three.