Lisa's Voice

The Ghosts of Halloween Costume Fails

I’ve had some Halloween wins in my time. The aces were always group costumes, especially my gang of friends who went together to Halloween swing dance parties. 

One year we were The Original Spice Girls. 

From left to right: Spooky Spice, Sparkle Spice, Wild Spice (me!), Fiery Spice, and Sassy Spice

Another year we were zombies.

And another year we were mobsters and molls. 

Mobsters and Molls

But my Halloween Fails haunt me to this day

Halloween Fail #1: The Weirdo from West Africa

My very first Halloween, I was nine years old and my parents had moved me in the  middle of the school year. Wouldn’t have been so bad, but we’d been living overseas, so I had a weird accent and was profoundly clueless about third-grade American kid culture. Then somebody’s mom forced her poor brat to invite me to a Halloween costume party. Although I had most recently lived in Indonesia, the other kids knew me as “the girl from Africa.” They asked why wasn’t I black, did I ride an elephant to school, and did I know any cannibals? 

Note: This was 1972. “Africa” was a single place, Tarzan lived there, and everybody was a black cannibal except him.

      I didn’t know what to wear, but Halloween was scary. Your costume was supposed to scare people. Cannibals were scary, right? I raided my dad’s closet for a dashiki, an ornate shirt worn by Ghanaian men, which hung on me like a dress. I dug in the toy box for a baby doll, which, of course, was spanking white. I took its clothes off and wound a wooden tribal necklace around its throat. My mom said, “That’s what you’re wearing?” 

     I said, “I’m a cannibal. I’m going to eat this baby.” 

Little Lisa, the weirdo from West Africa

     She said, “Fine.” 

    My mom left me at the party with all the store-bought Snow Whites and Supermen, and I knew I was screwed. 

     “What are you?” they said. 

     I tried explaining myself to the disinterested, disgusted, and confused. That was my first lesson in “If you have to explain it, it ain’t workin’.” 

     I ran into the bedroom and took off the dashiki. Luckily I had regular clothes on underneath. I wrapped the shirt around the baby doll and hid them under the bed. Now I had to explain why I didn’t have a costume on, which, at age nine, really isn’t much cooler than being the white baby-eating weirdo from Africa.

Halloween Fail #2: Two Dogs!

FYI the real dog is on the left.

By the time I was in my thirties, I had my own daughter, and I was not going to let her go without help with her Halloween costume. We lived right near the Penn State Main Campus, and the town has a huge Halloween parade that culminates in a costume contest. I adapted a sewing pattern for a plush panda bear costume to look exactly like my border collie Pip and spent weeks running with scissors and running a sewing machine. 

     On an uncharacteristically steamy hot late October day, I stuffed my sweating four-year-old into the woolly costume and painted her face to match Pip’s, pink tongue and all. As we marched in the parade, person after person cried out, “Look! Two dogs!” Really, my shaggy black-and-white daughter and dog were practically indistinguishable, just one had a flat face and walked upright. 

Q: What do dogs like to eat? A: Cat food!

     The parade ended at the high school football field, where the judging took place. Trying to keep my daughter hydrated, conscious, and committed to her canine character, I looked around–we had this. No one had put so much time and talent into their costumes. There was one other dog, a plain teenage girl who blackened the tip of her nose and stuck on paper dog ears, but clearly she was no threat. She didn’t even have a tail or a live matching dog.

She won.

     That was before Toddlers and Tiaras and other stage mom memes were a thing. It turned out the judges were high school boys! Probably her friends! At the time, I didn’t know I could’ve thrown my weight around. I could’ve demanded to know whose face that bitch was licking. 

Halloween Fail #3: Bad Ebola Hospital

Fast forward to 2014. My husband and I had just moved into a Florida neighborhood with sidewalks. Kids, I thought, would be ringing my doorbell all evening. We had to make the house as spooky as possible to attract them. At the time the West African Ebola Outbreak was all the rage, and not only had I spent part of my childhood in West Africa, I was huge fan of the nonfiction thriller The Hot Zone. I’d been glued to the news. People in West Africa were real to me.

      And I still believed Halloween should be scary, and at that time, the scariest thing I could think of was a pandemic.

A little blood goes a long way.

      To attract the kiddos, I put quarantine signs and caution tape around the house and yard. Thanks to my daughter’s passion for zombies and zombie walks, (she was even an extra in a short film, Project Resident Evil: Operation Mad Jackal), I had an extra gallon of fake blood. I drizzled it up the front walk. I splashed the door and front window. I also hung window clings of bloody hands sliding down the glass in a last effort to escape. I bought surgical scrubs for my family, spattered them liberally, and donned them all in rubber gloves and the now-familiar N95s, and bloodied those, too. My daughter and I thought it was hilarious.

     Let me say, I don’t think Ebola is funny. Halloween, however, is a time to laugh in the teeth of death. I also enjoyed  the delusion that the US was so on top of medical science and its public so versed in post-apocalyptic science fiction that no pandemic would ever breach and burn this continent. It felt safe to laugh at what scared me, which is the point of Halloween. 

     My daughter and I had a blast making sure our Ebola hospital violated all sanitary protocol. Well, the first doorbell didn’t ring until about an hour after dusk. By then my daughter and I had watched almost all of the Spanish pandemic horror film REC. Parents stood with their kids, who were dressed in store bought Frozen and Star Wars costumes. The kids didn’t bat an eye at us. 

     The parents, though, recognized we’d put in some effort. They said, “What are you?” 

“Ebola doctors,” I said and inwardly gave my house and costume an F. 

My makeup skills are limited.

     “Oh,” they said. 

     Around ten o’clock, the doorbell rang one last time. By then, my daughter and I were well into Quarantine, the American remake of REC. There stood a few teenagers not really dressed as anything. One of them had blackened the tip of her nose and stuck on paper dog ears. 

 “So where are all the trick-or-treaters?” I said. 

     “Everybody goes to Trunk or Treat?” she said. “It’s safer?” 

     “Safer than what?” I said. 

     “Razor blades? Pedophiles? Murderers?” 

     “Oh,” I said. “Real dangers.”

I dumped the bowl of candy in their sack, wished them well, and went to bed, secure in the knowledge that my daughter did not have leukemia or any other immune deficiency and no one I loved would ever die in a pandemic.

Laugh while you can . . . time is just melting away.

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