Monsters I Have Been: A Lifetime In Five Halloween Disguises

Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme! (With a $7.99 red cape!)

Part of a series about monsters and other scary things happening here through Halloween.

With its crisp autumn weather and golden piles of leaves and the smell of fireplace smoke on city streets, Halloween is the best time of year. Staggering beneath great stacks of costume boxes, UPS deliverymen maneuver through mazes of foam tombstones and doorways crowded with organic heirloom jack o’ lanterns. Even the seasonal aisles at the corner chain drug store are worth lingering over this time of year, in a way nobody dawdles around the Eastertime merchandise or inflatable lawn pools of summer. Even the shabby costume superstore that appears for six weeks within some unloved vacant storefront has a spirit of fun and community utterly unknown to the previous retail tenant.

The greatest delight of Halloween is reserved for those who put on a ridiculous costume and go out in public, onto the streets and into the bars and to the homes of friends and near-strangers. Everything commonplace is exciting and weird when you’re wandering with a pack of comrades in masquerade. I know this, despite the fact that I hardly ever do it — I’ve put in the necessary effort less than a half-dozen times, and each occasion has been weird and memorable. Making a proper costume is much more than dressing up. The best costumes create entire little worlds that are all the more beautiful for their brief lifespans. When hundreds and thousands of these Temporary Autonomous Zones collide and interact within the mutated American version of the old supernatural festivals of Fall, it’s the closest to magick most of us will ever experience.

The big weekend parties are over and a gigantic storm named after a horror monster is swirling over half the country, but Halloween itself is still waiting. You still have time to put together something memorable with your roommates, partners, co-workers and comrades. And if there’s a blackout affecting 40 million people on All Hallow’s Eve, it will be that much more magical: Everyone will drink whiskey and wine instead of bland refrigerated beer, and the pumpkins will be your hurricane lamps.

Dracula, New Orleans, circa 1979: For months, I had badgered the neighbor kids to help me build a haunted house attraction in my family’s New Orleans backyard. There were heavy oaks and a single-car garage and dark pathways along the fence. I mapped out a basic walk-through attraction with scenes from the old horror movies shown by the local teevee creep, “Dr. Morgus,” and began collecting set materials and writing parts for everyone… and of course nobody helped, so the grand schemes for multi-actor scenes gave way to the usual untended graveyards and ghosts hanging in the Spanish moss. Three kids from across the street were finally bribed into appearing as a monster band, because they liked an AM pop radio group of the day; they lip-synced to novelty Halloween songs, “Monster Mash” and its ilk, and I worked the gate, collecting quarters for admission and then running through the dark behind the garage to perform with the others. Later, after everyone had gone home to watch more television and trick-or-treating was over for another year, I walked through the home-made attraction again and again, the dry ice fog still covering the grass, the Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House record still replaying Side One. It was sad and perfect, except for the plaster arm cast sticking out of my vampire/church suit’s right arm.

Slavic Barbarian, Prague, 1992: Another dozen years passed before I put any effort into a costume, probably because I wore a pretty convincing costume every day for work (“police-beat newspaper reporter”) and also thought Halloween was for children and amateurs. But then came the freezing Fall of 1992, when I found myself living with three or four Americans in a dreary panelák housing project in Prague 8. Today there’s a Halloween superstore in the middle of Old Town’s high-rent zone; 20 years ago the celebration was all but unknown. Using nothing but the odd materials we found in the closets and cupboards of our dreary flat, we assembled scraps of 1970s’ shag carpeting, mysterious rolls of parchment probably made to line cabinets, balls of rough twine, and a “Made In Yugoslavia” makeup kit from the 1970s. My roommate Tom — we actually shared a tiny room — decided these were the long-lost garments of an ancient Slavic tribe that once lived upon the grassy hillside where our concrete apartment tower now stood. With barbarian patterns of crumbly earth-tone lipstick and eye shadow on our faces and brown carpet remnants tied to our heads and bodies, we boarded the tram with a bunch of similarly shoddily-costumed comrades. We called ourselves the Kobylisy, after our edge-of-town neighborhood, and spoke in a language of horrible grunts. Everyone who saw us was visibly repulsed. At several pubs, the beer man refused to serve us. So we drank nothing but Becherovka, the dreadful herbal liquor popular with old people who crave death, and waved around our parchments full of runic curses.

William S. Burroughs, San Francisco 1993: A year later I was the co-manager of a derelict apartment building in the TenderNob, that interzone between Nob Hill, Polk Gulch and the Tenderloin. The building had been purchased by a single-season 49er whose wife knew my girlfriend, and that’s how I unwittingly served as an agent of gentrification in exchange for free housing. With its public transportation and comically cheap rents, San Francisco became home to a lot of people I’d first met in Prague. And on this particular Halloween, the old apartment house was turned into a very loose interpretation of the Beat Hotel. There was no Ginsberg or Kerouac, but a terrible Andy Warhol stalked around trying to convince people to try the canned bean dip. Vacant apartments were left open for guests to enjoy sex and drug abuse, actual crazy people walked the halls, a man in a fez operated the elevator, and I held court in my “writing apartment” (a vacant studio), dressed in an undertaker’s thrift store suit and hat, a pile of antique syringes sharing space on a card table with my cigarettes and cocktail and a gruesome old typewriter with spider legs sprouting from the machine’s anus. Does anybody remember David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch? No? Well, it was something like that. And it wasn’t much different the day after the Halloween party, either.

Hagrid the Groundskeeper, Los Angeles, 2001: Maybe it was 9/11, which was very much the continuing crisis in October of 2001, or maybe it was because I’d just gotten married in Mexico and everybody had such a good time that we wanted to keep celebrating, but this was the biggest and happiest Halloween party I ever attempted. My wife and I were renting a long crumbling bungalow at the end of Sunset Drive, just up the street from KCET and the Vista Theater. The backyard was filled with olive trees and palms, which only looked spooky at night through the vapor light haze of the neighboring apartment building. We filled this entire space, inside and outside, with fake graveyards and occult tableaux. Costumes were mandatory and turnout was exceptional. The Harry Potter books were a big thing at the time, and a bunch of us had been to the premiere of the first movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. My wife was dressed as Hermione Granger and giving tarot readings using the Crowley deck, various ghouls and dead rock stars were working the Ouija board at a red-clothed card table, the smokers still outnumbered the non-smokers and filled the gloomy back yard, and we ran a full-volume disco until 4 a.m., when the L.A.P.D. arrived. In my full Hagrid getup — motorcycle boots, giant overcoat with a sofa cushion underneath, pink umbrella, massive black beard and hair — I negotiated with the policewomen in full Robbie Coltrane West Country accent. They laughed and gave us another half hour to blast music. I’ve since heard that October 2001 was a time of incredible Halloween parties, especially in New York. #sorryterrorists

Doctor Strange, Mojave Desert, 2012: The Hagrid/Hermione costumes were recycled in 2011 for the benefit of my kids, now old enough to be Harry Potter fans themselves — they were Harry and Ron, and “Harry” wrote a five-page screenplay that was faithfully committed to iMovie. But this year, there was a break in the boys’ endless dress-up as Hogwarts students, various incarnations of Doctor Who, Kirk and Spock, Luke and Anakin (best pals!), various hobbits and elves, and the kids from A Wrinkle In Time. This break was due to the Marvel superhero blockbuster movies currently dominating our culture, and my kids had claimed the roles of Captain America and Iron Man. My wife got the Black Widow character, which she likes almost too much, and I lost the “bearded 47-year-old” superhero to my kindergarten-aged son. What to do? A quick image search on Google proved that… in some alternate-universe storyline, all the Avengers had beards. Including Scarlett Johansson, probably! But there was also a Buddhist-Mystic superhero from the 1960s, with a lot of Philip K. Dick-style plots about shifting realities. Doctor Strange. Several Amazon orders and a few hours of iron-on yellow cape striping later, and I was the Sorcerer Supreme, occasional magician companion to the more kickass Avengers. It was good enough for our small town and our foray into Palm Springs and to the Living Desert Zoo “howl-o-ween.” I bought some $5.99 LED “rave gloves” to do magic hand swirlies. Halloween was saved.

Previously in series: The Fantastic Outer-Space Tale Of The Flatwoods Monster

Ken Layne is a Thelemic contributor to The Awl, a Reuters Halloween columnist, and the producer of an epic 1,200-part Twitter account. Photo by lscrane.