Halloween in the Eighties: Then and Now

Don’t be jealous of me you guys, but my Halloween Pinterest board has 247 amazing pins on it right now!

To start, I’m making a quaint pennant banner to hang from my mantle that spells out, “Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat- hashtag blessed!” (I have an enormous mantle.) Accenting the mantle will be Victorian-era holiday cards and homemade ghosts I’m sewing with vintage quilting squares. Decorating is never complete without mason jars, so I am placing at least five in each room and filling them with black and orange jellybeans I had imprinted with silhouettes of my children trick-or-treating last year. I took the free time I’ve had since school started to prepare and deep freeze hotdogs shaped like severed fingers and pastry dough rolled into mummies, and I will defrost these to pack in my children’s lunches each day. I’ve decided to carve a pumpkin vomiting guacamole every Wednesday as a commitment to being more festive, a resolution I pinned from 2,014 Ideas for New Years Resolutions in 2014. And not to brag, but I’ve already devoted 600 hours to sewing handmade costumes for my children that reflect the higher moral consciousness my family has, and I will bake homemade goodies to pass out on Halloween that thematically correspond to my children’s costumes (my daughter is going as World Peace and my son as Fiscal Responsibility, thereby giving me the opportunity to be very creative in my baking).

This is going to be my greatest Halloween yet!

Just kidding.

I mean, no offense if you’re someone who is doing any or all of these things on this list. I do love me some Victorian-era holiday cards and Halloween is by far my favorite holiday where decorations are concerned. But there is no way I could be so proactive in accomplishing that much in my life other than devouring this bean and cheese taco right now.

Pinterest is amazing and an occasional lifesaver and whatnot, but let’s all agree that we will look back on our lives 20 years from now and cringe at the knowledge that we once had 12 intangible inspiration boards dedicated to Annie Sloan chalk paint and crock pot recipes.

That said, I do appreciate how Pinterest, despite its virtual presence, has been instrumental in the resurgence of homemade crafting and DIY projects and the personal, hands-on interaction those activities entail. It gives me the feeling that despite the increasingly horror-ridden world in which we live, we’re still making an effort to get back to our roots in enjoying things reminiscent of a simpler time. (I mean, those simpler times were also horror-ridden in their own ways and filled with centuries of terrible wars, but people continued to churn their own butter and make corncob dolls or cool pie on windowsills and macramé plant hangers or whatever.)

My relative in the simpler times of the early 60’s when the men were men and the kids dressed as Santa Claus fresh out of the shower with an enormous hernia.
Insane Clown Posse in simpler times.
Insane Clown Posse in simpler times.
The scariest parts of the simpler times of the 1950’s were the Cold War and this Howdy Doody costume.

But this recent Pinterest-infused, precious-as-all-get-out holiday resurgence is 180-degrees from how I remember Halloween as a kid in the 70’s and 80’s.

For starters, we were told everything had razorblades and drugs stuffed in it.




Back then, our parents would not dare get caught being the people making homemade anything on the off chance they could be accused of illegal tampering. My friend Regan even recalls a local mall providing parents with the chance to x-ray their children’s candy bags because razor blade/drug paranoia was so rampant. And while that may seem unbelievable, she says she must be remembering it correctly because, “This fact is coming from the girl who had to practice screaming in the event of kidnapping, so I’m pretty sure the mall actually had some sort of scanning thing that was set up. I remember all the borderline-crazy stuff.” (Girl who remembers practicing screaming to escape kidnappers = Reliable resource for confirming candy bag x-rays.)

Back then, Halloween didn’t seem as saccharine as it does now. I don’t remember it as a holiday inundated with photo shoots from adorable pumpkin patches around San Antonio. In my memory, store displays were hard core scary and didn’t have the crafty quaintness of Hobby Lobby’s rows of monogrammed pumpkins and burlap scarecrows that you see today. I’m sure there were Good Housekeeping issues devoted to baking cute pies and DIY Raggedy Ann yarn wigs, but my recall only includes a culture indulging in the Wes Craven version of the holiday. It seemed like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th were everywhere. While I was allowed to watch The Worst Witch (Tim Curry AND Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life!) and Disney’s Mr. Boogedy, (SPOILER ALERT! THE KIDS TRAP HIM IN A VACUUM!), I was definitely not allowed to rent the videos whose covers completely frightened and enchanted me at Pic-A-Video like Killer Klowns from Outer Space and C.H.U.D. (I maintain that 75% of video rental space was dedicated to horror movies in the first place because the only other videos people rented back then were Crocodile Dundee and movies with Steve Guttenberg.)

And maybe Halloween didn’t seem as sweet because it wasn’t dragged out over three months like it is now and only had four quick weeks to get straight to the point and market its gore fest to the masses. Or maybe it didn’t seem as sweet because we kids were already obsessively consumed 365 days of the year with calling the Donkey Lady, conjuring Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror, and begging our parents to let us put flour on the bumper of the family wagon to check for handprints after they drove it over the ghost tracks.

In my family, before the ubiquitous presence of pop-up costume shops and craft stores, there were only two places you visited to get Halloween stuff: The Hallmark Store and the grocery store.

If you were my mom, you’d hightail it to the nearest Hallmark Store to buy t-shirts and glow-in-the-dark accessories, but only once would you remember to purchase pants.

T-shirt from the Hallmark Store year 1.
T-shirt from the Hallmark Store and men’s boxer shorts, year one.
T-shirt from the Hallmark Store year two.
T-shirt from the Hallmark Store and no pants, year two.
T-shirt from the Hallmark Store, year three.
T-shirt from the Hallmark Store and stirrup pants, year three.
T-shirt from the Hallmark Store and men's black Guess denim jolts year four.
T-shirt from the Hallmark Store and men’s black Guess denim jorts, year four.

If you were my dad, you’d take your kids straight to the Halloween aisle at Albertsons, as indicated by the smell of latex masks and a red siren suspended from the ceiling reminding shoppers they could find all their nightmares near the frozen foods. The aisle was filled with the obligatory plastic poncho costumes and matching masks and displayed a seeming infinity of wax paper wrapped orange and black peanut butter toffees.

And can we discuss those orange and black wax paper candies for a moment, please? They were horrible to receive as children. Giving them out was as good as guaranteeing you would not get a single ding-dong on your doorbell the following year because your house would be marked as a gigantic disappointment never to be visited again (the other disappointments being folks who handed out donut coupons or baggies filled with pennies and Jesus pamphlets).

I do suppose one common thread between now and then would be the costumes. There’s always one group of folks that goes the homemade route and another that grabs a costume-in-a-bag. It’s just that yesterday’s homemade costumes were less intricate and self-promoting in the way that Pinterest encourages, and yesterday’s costumes-in-a-bag were basically a vinyl table cloth with a hole poked in the top and a cheap mask that looked nothing like whatever character it claimed to be. Unless you were Gabe Kaplan from Welcome Back, Kotter or Tattoo from Fantasty Island. These seemed on point.

Nothing here cost more than $3.
Nothing here cost more than $3.

In the 80’s, the costume decision process was also simpler. You could put on the top half of your Underroos and be a Marvel superhero or various Star Wars characters, or you could repurpose that bathrobe you wore as a shepherd in a Nativity play into being a hobo (or another shepherd). If you were a baby, your parents probably zipped you up into your footie pajamas, called you by whatever character was on the front of your jammies (most likely cookie monster) and patted themselves on the back. Folks didn’t have options like Party City or Etsy to diversify their costumes, so that’s why if you look in the yearbooks from anyone who graduated in the mid 1990’s, everyone appears to have the same photo of themselves trick-or-treating as Wonder Woman or Rambo.

And don’t even get me started on the sexy versions of regular costumes marketed to nine year olds or we’ll be here all day.

I’d love to hear about your own Halloween memories in the comments. Watch out for razorblades and Dexatrim in your candy, you guys, and if anyone knows where I can score some fake chest hair to complete my Steve Guttenberg costume, I’d really appreciate it. That’s one place Pinterest is really lacking.

*Pinterest, I (mostly) love you! Please don’t be mad at me. I confess I need your crock pot tips really badly. Don’t hide your fake chest hair tips from me over this, Pinterest!

Ashley is a back-up dancer for circa 1989 Janet Jackson in her dreams and a mother of two preschoolers in her waking life. An Alamo City native, she spent her college and post-college years in TN, CA and AZ (all lovely states completely incompetent in the fine art of breakfast tacos). After crying everyday in radio sales, working next to a sheep pen at a rural telecom, being totally confused in agriculture, and completely giving up and drawing cartoons of co-workers at an online university, she finally found her calling in grant writing for a non profit arts organization. And then her husband (who, no joke, watches college football for a living) was like, “Hey! We can move to San Antonio to be closer to your family if you want to!” And then Ashley was like, “Hey! That’s good timing because remember all that drinking I was doing last week because I thought I had really bad PMS and wanted to power through it? Well, that PMS is a baby!” So they moved to S.A. and Ashley found a job with a rural non profit, but when she tried to go back to work after the baby, living on no sleep with a newborn and a traveling husband unable to share in the workload, she quickly learned she was about five seconds away from a mental breakdown. Cut to today where she is a full time mom, loving the freedom to run all over the city each day with her kids, despite a 98% decrease in her ability to pee alone/do less than 19 loads of laundry each week. She chronicles her most embarrassing childhood moments and photos at This is Me at 13-ish (http://meat13.tumblr.com), in hopes that she never forgets that as difficult as it is to be a parent, it is just as much of a struggle to be a kid.


  1. this is hilarious! i trick-or-treated in illinois. sometimes we were like flashers: unzipping our winter coats to flash our costumes we wore underneath. it was never cool when it was cold and mom made you wear your coat OVER your costume. and way cool – thanks for linking my post from your post…love your writing!

  2. My pinterest board has 248 pins, but I’m not bragging. LOVE this post and do you know what I remember the most? My MOM spray-dying her hair orange before my fourth grade class party. I secretly thought it was the coolest thing ever, but was too busy worrying about my hallmark shirt to thank her for being awesome.

    • Whaddaya know, I’m commenting on a comment! Never did I want anything more in life than to have my own can of spray-dye for my hair. To this day, I’ve never owned my own can- it’s like it’s something I have to work up to goal-wise or I’ll have nothing left in life to look forward to.

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