Take Back the Fright

How Martha Stewart, Boo Bags, and modern life almost killed Halloween for me—and why I’m reclaiming the holiday.

Boo bags.
Boo Bagging, or Ghosting, is a new tradition in which neighbors anonymously leave each other Halloween-themed treats

Photograph by Holly Allen

When I was little, I knew that I would grow up to be that lady in whatever neighborhood I eventually moved to, the one whose house everyone visited on Halloween. House-hunting 20 years later, my must-haves had little to do with plumbing or roofs. Any house seriously in the running had to be old enough to be easily transformed into a semblance of the foreboding manors of Rebecca or The House of the Seven Gables. Cue the 1799 colonial where we now live. With a bit of faux cobweb and proper lighting, it’s a stone-cold haunted house. And so, for the first few years I lived here, it became the house where The Ghost of the Lady Who Lived Here Before held court on Halloween. Trick-or-treaters brave enough to knock on the front door would see it open inward of its own accord. Eerie music would waft from the dark interior. A pale figure would glide forward, a lady in an ancient dress (my husband’s great-great-grandmother’s 1906 wedding dress, preserved in an acid-free box all but one night a year). This lady—me—did not look pleased, or even alive. She offered a crystal bowl of candy while saying the most frightening things about how she disliked the new people who had moved into the house. Kids would run away, shrieking with delight, only to return moments later to claim their treats.

Lest you suspect I’m one of those hyper-organized domestic perfectionists, keep in mind that my home office floor is littered with bills that I’ve been meaning to file for months. Dirty laundry will never win out over a crime novel with one chapter left. And yet, in the run-up to Halloween, I have been known to jerry-rig a fog machine by way of Pex piping and a plastic ice chest in order to produce low-lying spooky mist. If there were a fire in my house, I’d grab my bin of fake ravens and bats right after the kids and cat. My favorite recipe is for something called Monster Eyeballs, from a Halloween cookbook that I love to give as a gift year-round. It’s this one holiday that has always brought out the domestic maniac in me.

Over the last few years, though, my ardor for Halloween dampened slightly. I had three babies in three years (including a set of twins) and could no longer button The Lady’s dress—that was part of the issue, but not all of it. My larger problem with Halloween began when I first learned of the inane new tradition known as Boo Bagging (or Ghosting, in some areas) and realized that perhaps the holiday I’d loved forever had changed and grown right along with my waistline, and neither for the better.

If you are wondering what Boo Bagging could possibly be, consider yourself lucky. It is when a person with far too much time on her hands puts together multiple Halloween-themed gift bags (the more Martha Stewart the better) with a standardized “Boo” poem attached. She leaves one on your doorstep in the middle of the night. You open the door in the morning and you’ve been “Boo’d.” Sounds fine, I know: Who wouldn’t want a cute bag of homemade goodies? Just wait till you read the instructions contained in one of these poems, though. The whole thing is a pumpkin-seed-brittle-fueled chain letter. Having been “Boo’d,” a woman has just 48 short hours to return the favor by “Boo’ing” two more friends or neighbors. If you don’t have a gift closet stocked with seasonal items and a super-organized wrapping station, you are screwed. What sane woman would do this to another woman?

Boo Bagging represents precisely the pressure that I already dread around Christmas. Part of the reason that Halloween is generally stress-free is that gift-giving isn’t part of the celebration. And yet there Target was last year, selling prepackaged Boo Bag kits. Which is when I started to look suspiciously upon the surrounding shelves of Halloween-themed tissue boxes, hand towels, serving platters, pajamas, socks, and earrings—all of which have steadily proliferated in recent years. I began to wonder if all this was such innocent fun after all. I should have seen this coming, of course. When Martha herself trotted out a Halloween line with Grandin Road complete with such offerings  as a Flicker Flame Light Strand (basically punked-out Christmas lights), it should have prompted old-school Halloween practitioners like me to freak out. I should have realized that Halloween was officially on its way to Major Holiday—and therefore Major Headache—status.

Soon, one of my most reliable evening indulgences—reading the Pottery Barn Kids catalog over a stiff drink—failed to entertain or soothe me; instead of inspiration, I saw only $79 skull papier-mâché luminaries and other crap with which to fill needlessly expensive tablescapes. Halloween was clearly not for me anymore, I concluded, so I might as well scale back and start celebrating it like a regular person. As long as they got their candy, the kids wouldn’t care—or so I told myself. This, then, is how, last year, for the third time in a row, I found myself half-heartedly prepping for another Halloween of giving out treats dressed as a mere witch, telling anyone who asked that The Lady wasn’t home this year.

There were a couple of ironies to all this, it turns out. The first is that even as Boo Bags and Halloween housewares multiply, the old-school way of celebrating Halloween is, by many observations, dying off. For years now, trick-or-treating has been an endangered pastime, as exaggerated fears of stranger danger have led parents to favor brightly lit, chaperoned Halloween parties over traditional door-knocking. The second irony, as I learned earlier this month, is that the woman who arguably started the current Halloween consumer craze, Martha Stewart, is herself an utterly suspect Halloween fan. For this insight we have Alexis Stewart to thank. In Whateverland, a weirdly addictive new book in which she recalls life as Martha’s daughter, Alexis reveals that while she growing up, Halloween was never celebrated at her house. Martha actually turned the lights off and pretended not to be home. Any kids dumb enough to knock anyway were rewarded with pennies and apples.

But back to my house, and Halloween last year. I didn’t give up on the holiday entirely—my Bell, Book and Candle-meets-Mad Men witch was perfectly respectable, if not in the same league as The Lady—but I didn’t decorate the house. Trick-or-treaters came and went uneventfully, waves of Sponge Bobs and Cinderellas looking for candy. Then a little girl, about 11 years old, arrived at our door dressed in a high-necked, pale Victorian gown. Her hair was pulled back and her face was painted white. “Who are you supposed to be?” I asked as she collected her candy. The girl’s mother stepped forward from the shadowy sidewalk and said, “She’s dressed as you. She loves the costume that you sometimes wear. We were hoping you’d have it on tonight.” I tried not to cry while I admired my young trick-or-treater’s very particular costume.

I knew then that The Lady had to come back this year, come hell, high water, or two pairs of extra-strength Spanx topped off with a boned corset. Her memory was powerful enough to help cancel out any visions of the newer Halloween, the one I loathe, the Halloween of ho-witch, ho-devil, ho-bat, and ho-cat costumes on even the smallest toddler girls.

If I didn’t like the direction that Halloween was taking, it was up to me to do something about it. Halloween, after all, may be the one holiday left when you truly get to choose who you will and won’t celebrate with, and how. Is there any other holiday where you can wake up feeling like a right royal bitch and not have to sweep every last trace of that mood under the rug? On Halloween all you need do is don a pointy hat and congratulate yourself for Lee Strasberg-quality immersion in the holiday. And so, in this spirit, as I gear up to be The Lady again this year—for the first time in four years—I may also Boo Bag a girlfriend. If I do, though, I’ll do it my way: tucking a bottle of good wine, a fabulously scary book or movie, and some excellent candy into a bag, along with a note that says “Wicked behavior encouraged—and that means no thank you note or reciprocation required.”