How Halloween has changed during a half-century in Orange County

In the early 1960s, when I was about 6, my family lived in Santa Ana across the street from the most dangerous place on Earth. This dreadful labyrinth that ran the length of Mabury Street was a jungle of scraggly orange trees with branching arms straining toward us from vast uncountable rows. It only appeared to be an innocent orange grove. We knew the truth: The bogyman lived there.

Why was our house across from a monster’s haven? My family arrived in a postwar wave that descended on the region’s untamed terrain. Open land eventually evolved into planned communities. But we were part of an early surge, which is important to note for two reasons: First, because it seemed everyone in our young community was acquainted with everyone else; and, second, because the neighborhood was so new, it just plain sparkled.

We kids of Sierra Elementary School were especially new to everything, including scary things, and, in the naturalness of our worldview, we assumed that the speculations among playmates up and down Mabury Street must contain some flicker of truth.

Putting our little heads together, we forged a bogyman who grew more real to us with each story, and electrified our play to screams and giggles. We broadened his powers with each telling. Nobody said he had to stay in the grove, sharpening his claws on the forest’s fattest tree, so we assumed he wandered our streets after our parents tucked us safely into bed.

Every day of the year we biked, skated, scootered, and raced along miles of sidewalk. We weren’t afraid to head to a pal’s house all the way across 17th Street, even in the first grade. Santa Ana felt safe, at least in daylight.

But once a year, our parents would let us traipse out the door without supervision, as long as we hunted in packs. Scampering through our jack-o-lanterned neighborhood, we dodged the demon. It was more thrilling than an amusement park. We kept an eye on shadows while scurrying along, shrieking every so often, sure the bogyman hid just behind every hedge. Was it worth it to risk capture? You bet. Halloween brought fun to our fears.

Trick-or-treating back then held more authentic adventure than any of today’s prepackaged haunted houses. And the prize, of course, was the largest pillowcase sugar sack you could ever hope to own, brimming with popcorn balls and candy apples (both of which we were allowed to eat), jelly beans, candy corn, and chocolates, not to mention wax vampire teeth, candy necklaces, Pixy Stix, Milk Duds, lollipops and more—enough mouthwatering bliss to make every dentist rev up his drill. We came home when the final jack-o-lantern slept, cooling in its window.

In time, Sierra Elementary became a junior high. The orange grove was bulldozed—replaced by apartments—and the kids scattered. With more waves of settlers, most kids in North County grew up amid disappearing open space. Several of our Santa Ana neighbor families migrated to South County’s suburbs. My family moved to Laguna Beach. Only one friend remained in the old neighborhood.

I married and eventually settled in Irvine’s Woodbridge, a master-planned community with opulent greenery, lakes, and pools—a blissful return to the neighborhood sparkle of my childhood. Plus, a small orange grove stood nearby, giving my own kids a taste of adventure.

But Halloween changed in the 1980s. The bogyman of our fantasies became real. My friend in Santa Ana took her children to a school event each holiday, and then went home early, turned out her lights, and locked her doors. The next morning, many of her neighbors found spent shell casings littering the streets.

Irvine didn’t seem much safer. It was hard to ignore news reports about human monsters who really did prey on trick-or-treaters. To preserve what we could of this childhood rite, we bundled our little Mutant Ninja Turtles off to one of many malls offering alternative trick-or-treat fun. The merchants handed out penny candy, but the kids found it disappointing and grew bored standing in long lines. I felt my children had been cheated.

The next year, we drove to my brother’s home in Irvine’s Westpark Village. We made a point to trick-or-treat at the houses of acquaintances. Unfortunately, that meant maybe five houses. So many people, so few friends. I thought of my old pillowcase and again felt cheated.

Years passed and my sons grew old enough to hand out candy. I prepared treats and decorations. Not one child showed up. I realized that—of the few neighbors we knew—none had kids. My sons were disappointed by the lack of takers. So we jumped into my car with the candy and drove to all their friends’ homes. We rang the doorbell, and when they answered, we shouted, “Trick or treat!” and shoved candy into their hands. This reverse trick-or-treat became our tradition until my sons outgrew it.

Last year, I waited with treats for a fresh generation of trick-or-treaters. But the bogymen on the nightly news still kept kids away. Three Harry Potters arrived with their parents in tow. I hoped to see some older kids later, but Halloween ended quietly with a toast to absent friends and a scary movie on TV.

This year, it’s going to be different. I’m driving around Orange County with my iPad, calling on my virtual community of friends and relatives—each one a Facebook pal. Like the old days, I’ll know everyone. I’ll bring them wax lips and Pixy Stix. I’ll wear a homemade costume, and I’ll yell, “Trick or treat!” when they open the door.

Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.

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