By Mark Aldrich
One Halloween night, in 1979, I was allowed to venture on foot, in costume, and not accompanied by adults. I was 10. (Hold that thought for a second, please, while I address my mom: What!?!)
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The Martin Prosperity Institute released what it called its third “annual survey” of Halloween in America back in 2013. The Institute did not produce a fourth or any subsequent sequel to this seminal study of all things creepy, ghostly, and scary, and in 2019, the MPI closed up shop altogether. My hometown broke it, I believe, which I will explain.
The Institute’s 2013 in-depth look at the field of Halloween enjoyment, a study not seriously undertaken by most people older than eight, led to many national news articles that expressed shock at its conclusion, which was this: the best place for Halloween in the United States of America is Poughkeepsie, New York.
Allow me to emphasize some key and/or salient points here: 1. There are fifty states in this great nation. 2. Each of these fifty states is pretty important in the lives of the people who live in them. 3. There are lots and lots of cities in many of these fifty states. 4. I, Mark Aldrich, however, have only one hometown, and that hometown, Poughkeepsie, was voted Halloween Central in 2013 by a major little-known Canadian institute of Counting Things up to High Numbers to Make Assessments and Draw Conclusions about Them in Extremely Professional Ways.
One could say that this is a big deal. It isn’t, but one could say it.
Did they measure the assessments or assess the measurements? Whichever it was, it was exciting news for me. Would you like more candy corn?
The Washington Post expressed its confusion back then with a judgmental headline, “Is Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the best place to trick-or-treat tonight?” Okay, it was not all that judgmental. I think it was a little sneer-y. A little dumbfounded. Perhaps a little, um, jealous?
And how, do I ask, how did the MPI come to its conclusion (since we both love my hometown so much, I think I can call the now-defunct Martin Prosperity Institute by the more informal “MPI” or even “Marty”) that Poughkeepsie does Halloween better than … oh, I could write the name of every city in the country here, but I am no Grinch … better than every-damn-body else?
According to Marty’s press release at the time, titled “Trick or Treat? The 2013 Halloween Index” (dead link), the MPI measured “five variables that are integral to a successful Halloween: candy stores (per 10 thousand), costume rental stores (per 10 thousand), children aged 5-14 (share of metro population), population density, and median income.”
Now, while Poughkeepsie did not rank first in any one of these five categories, which is usually not a good way to win surveys, it ranked so high across the board that it beat second-place Chicago, Illinois, (the 2012 winner).
What’s that you say? Chicago is a great-big city with big buildings! And … Poughkeepsie?
Jackson, Tennessee, was found to have the greatest number of costume stores per capita. Ocean City, New Jersey, had the most candy stores. But Poughkeepsie’s high average income and large number of costume stores sent it to number one in general Halloween-ness.
See for yourself. Here is a very precise graphical representation, created for the occasion by the MPI (this was really in the press release!):
According to its press releases about itself, the Martin Prosperity Institute was “the world’s leading think-tank on the role of location, place and city-regions in global economic prosperity.” Marty was based in the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, Canada, which is itself a lovely city and might be a great Halloween destination for the adventurous Halloween traveler, but it is no Poughkeepsie, New York, it must be said.
It should come as no surprise for those of us who grew up in Poughkeepsie that our hometown is the fake spookiest or candy-sweetest or simply the best Halloween community in all of America, in 2013 or really any year, before or since.
Any October visitor might notice how many
fly-by-night (erm, seasonal) costume stores appear along the Rt. 9 corridor every fall, or the large number of short-lived candy shops, or professionally run haunted houses, or the fact that there is a gigantic freaking (and real, not pretend) cemetery alongside miles and miles of the Rt. 9 corridor. For those visitors—business travelers and ghouls alike—this study makes plenty of sense.
The discovery that Poughkeepsie is the best Halloween city would have made a lot of sense to my sister and our elementary school friends and me if you’d told us this back in the 1970s. Like all suburban kids, we thought of Halloween as an annual glimpse of the ideal job: get paid—in candy!—for wearing different clothes. Why is this only once a year?
Myself, I was never a particularly enthusiastic trick-or-treater. To be honest, until I was a teenager, I was rarely enthusiastic, period. As a less-than-enthusiastic cub scout (which also required different clothes), I remember one had to sell things door-to-door from the most boring scout catalog imaginable (two items that I remember are plastic campground dining gear and peanut brittle that most years lasted longer than the plastic camping gear). But that job taught me my way around the neighborhood, so I knew which houses were owned by people I did not want to see in bright daylight, much less at dusk with a pumpkin basket in my hand.
The plastic shop-bought masks from that period—Fred Flintstone, Spiderman, Superman—were each identical except for the paint job on the front, they did not line up over my eyes much less my eyeglasses, and they were held in place by the flimsiest rubber band yet devised by human ingenuity. Oh! and I could not breathe in them. Each had a smock and a cape—even Fred Flintstone, I seem to recall, or perhaps the cape was an example of my mother’s ingenuity to keep me warm—and none earned me much candy, year after year. My less-than-enthusiastic cub scout side always beat out my slightly more enthusiastic beg-for-candy side.
Alongside our neighborhood, on two sides, was “The Woods.” (I have written about my memories there.) Google Maps will convince you that the wooded area between my childhood neighborhood and the Hudson River is not impressive, that it is merely undeveloped and unloved land left to rodents and deer and pricker bushes and some extraordinarily ordinary maples and oaks. The untrained eye will see, if one were to drive along the country road bordered on one side by The Woods, that one can clearly see all the way to the not-distant Hudson River and hear trains on the Metro-North line a few dozen yards away. I pity my 2020 eyes and ears for these facts, because I knew, I just knew, back in 1977, that those trains sometimes came off their tracks and plunged howling into The Woods at night. And some of those rodents and deer had never before been seen by the eyes of scientists. Some of them were feral (the animals, not the scientists) and wild and wildly feral. (Never mind the many firepits one could stumble across in daytime walks through the woods, or the plastic forks and plastic knives on the ground, or … is that a piece of peanut brittle?)
One Halloween night, in 1979, I was allowed to venture on foot, in costume, and not accompanied by adults (hold that thought for a second, please, while I address my mom: What!?!) from my neighborhood to my best friend’s neighborhood, which was connected to mine by Barnegat Road. You may not know Poughkeepsie like I know Poughkeepsie, so please understand that The Woods, the scary woods I just mentioned, borders Barnegat Road. Do I need to repeat this? Do I need to color in the dots or connect the lines for you?
My best friend, Doug, loved to tell tall tales. I did not want to think of them as lies, but they were. “Tuesday” was a sufficient reason for him to reveal that he had a secret family in California and his absence from school yesterday was because he had been there and back in one day. Each time he hosted me for a sleepover, he would reveal to me that there had been a plane crash in The Woods the night before that no one was investigating (there had been no such incident) or a car had plunged down the embankment into The Woods the other night and exploded and the driver got out on fire (there had been no such accident) or his Polish grandmother had told him that there would be ghosts in 1979 that hadn’t been seen in many many years (he had no Polish grandmother). Thus, Halloween was when he turned pro.
Doug was and still is five days younger than me, he was creatively lazy, and these two facts made him a respected authority in my eyes. (I hope he is someone’s parent nowadays.)
At just the perfectly wrong moment, while he and I walked from his neighborhood back to mine, loot in our identical plastic pumpkin pails, just as he had committed with his words some luckless fictional airplane pilot to a fiery death earlier that very day a mere few feet from where we were now walking along Barnegat Road, just then, my flashlight went dark. We started to walk at a faster pace. Barnegat Road has very few streetlights along the stretch beside The Woods, and even fewer in my memory. The one we passed under with my newly dead flashlight sizzled and then went dark. Night has never been so loud or so silent in all the years since for me.
I had never seen a night so dark or learned of a death so credible in all my ten years, thanks to Doug’s cheerful fiction. Just then, we heard a sound. Of course we did: It was Halloween night, after all, and we were surrounded by dark silence and protected only with Superman masks, my mom’s blanket cape that Fred Flintstone could not be seen without, and pumpkins full of candy (Doug’s had more).
We heard a low, rasping scream of an anguished, crying creature—probably a rabbit or a mouse. Doug had found his true calling as a storyteller, at least this one night, because he finally seemed to believe his own tall tale, and we both bolted from what was obviously the ghost-tortured mortal remains of his burned-up pilot or the hungry specter of a train engineer come to steal us from Poughkeepsie, New York, which for us was already and always will be the best Halloween city in the country.
Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirtieth season on WFNP at 7:30 p.m. EST on Wednesdays. His website is TheGadAboutTown.com.
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