When I was a kid, Halloween was a fun time of year. We bought pumpkins at the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival, and on the way home, our elephant ear sugar-highs fueled elaborate costume plans. A few weeks later, we’d carve those pumpkins and go trick-or-treating. I don’t remember Halloween stores like Spirit popping up at every mall. I don’t remember excessive decorations like graves on the lawn and bloody feet hanging out of car trunks. I do remember candy and a party at school. And that was about it, in my family.
My husband, Shawn, experienced a different sort of childhood. In the Roberts family, Halloween was long-awaited and celebrated with vigor. And though my father-in-law died years before I met him, stories about him were legendary. On Halloween night, he would put speakers in the windows and play eerie music on an old hi-fi system. After the mood was set, he’d hide behind the woodpile and wait for unsuspecting kids, friends and relatives to wander by. Then, he’d pop out in a mask and scream like a banshee. It was a classic 1980’s prank you’d never get away with today.
Shawn’s dad must have passed on what he learned to his son because jumping out at people seems to be a Roberts pastime. Not only do Shawn and our boys love Halloween — each year, they gleefully string orange and purple lights along the mantle, over the grandfather clock, and wind them around our wedding portrait — but they love to scare and be scared. Specifically, they love jump-scares.
Not only do Shawn and our boys love Halloween — each year, they gleefully string orange and purple lights along the mantle, over the grandfather clock, and wind them around our wedding portrait — but they love to scare and be scared. Specifically, they love jump-scares.
Shawn has perfected the art of the jump-scare. He hides under Andy’s bed and reaches out to grab the kid’s ankles. He lurks in a dark room and makes creaking noises; the boys know he’s in there waiting to scare them and push each other toward the doorway, each trying to force the other to make the sacrifice. In the morning, when he greets the three of us at the breakfast table, he does it with a jump-scare. Usually, he targets the boys, but if I have my back to him while I make my smoothie, he’ll sneak up on me instead.
I have mixed feelings about jump-scares. I like going to haunted house attractions occasionally, but I find I’m far more open to the idea of being chased by a guy with a chainsaw in a place where I’ve actually paid to be chased by a guy with a chainsaw. In other words, if I want to be scared, I’ll buy a ticket. I don’t need that at home. I don’t need a tiny ninja bum-rushing me when I open the closet door. I don’t want a skeletal face poking its empty eye sockets through the boughs of my Christmas tree when I’m fiddling with the bubble lights, because that’s how holiday electrocutions happen. Yes, my family pops out at each other at Christmas, too. They do it all year long. In the Roberts household, there’s never a bad time for a jump-scare.
There are two kinds of people: those who startle easily, and those who don’t. My mom is in the latter category. When my brother and I were teenagers, he put a severed mannequin head in the fridge, right at eye level. She was so focused on finding the pickle relish that she missed it the first time she opened the door. The second time, she just shrugged and chuckled. We could never sneak up on her.
Not so for me. I despised that head. My brother named it Samuel, and it showed up everywhere: in my closet, in my suitcase, in the shower. Once, when I was down in the basement digging through the laundry pile, Samuel came rolling down the laundry chute from two floors above. It beaned me right in the noggin and then rolled to a stop on the tile floor, its dead eyes and lifeless smile staring up at me. I scrambled out of the pile only to crash into a drying rack laden with my grandmother’s soggy unmentionables.
I get my jumpiness from my dad, who once clutched his heart when we sprang out at him in the darkness. I thought we’d killed him that night. My husband, however, isn’t so easy to startle, and this makes the whole jump-scare business a bit unfair, in my opinion. He once jumped out at Ben with such vigor that Ben fell off his chair. On Christmas Eve in 2015, Shawn rang the doorbell. The kids, thinking it was Grandma, ran to the back door, where their father was waiting with his ghoul mask. They declared it the best Christmas jump-scare ever, and they watch the video of the prank regularly, studying his form and technique so they can repeat it on each other. And on me.
I’m not very good at startling people. I try to be stealthy, but the kids see my reflection, or the dogs see me and wag their tails, or I trip over a saxophone case and stub my toe. By the time I launch myself into the room and say blah!, my victim has lost interest. I’ve got the jump part down. I just seem to have trouble executing the scare.
I don’t know how we got to this point, because it wasn’t always this way. At first, it was just a little kid lurking behind a door, giggling loudly as he waited for his dad to come up the stairs and pretend to be scared. Then, it got more sophisticated. The kids learned to turn off the lights. Andy learned to lurk in dark corners, still as stone. Ben learned to bide his time and remain in his hiding place without giggling. Last spring, he waited outside the laundry room door for a full 20 minutes as I sorted and folded. When I emerged, basket in hand, he came flying out of the shadows. The boy earned that scream.
I’ve tried hard to keep up with the Roberts, to pay homage to this stupid, beloved tradition, but I seem to have a much harder time laughing off a moment of fear. Terror isn’t that much fun, if I’m being honest. It’s frustrating because a good prank is a thing of beauty. I love a well-placed whoopee cushion at Thanksgiving dinner. I actually own a rubber chicken and have a backup rubber chicken in case the first one gets lost. I’m just starting to hate jump-scares, and I’m in the minority in my home. They’re a band of merry jokesters, and I’m their favorite target, especially in October.
Last Sunday, Shawn took the boys to the Halloween store to get their costumes. Andy had been lobbying for an expensive latex mask, as he is at the age where a costume should be as horrifying as possible. (If first-graders don’t cry when they see him, his mission has failed.) My job was to stay at home and relax. I’d had a crummy week full of broken windows, spoiled milk and one cantankerous feline who coughed up a hairball on my bed. I needed some quiet time.
Their exact words were, “Honey/Mom, we want you to take the afternoon off and not worry about anything.” So I didn’t, for a few hours. Instead, I put a pumpkin pie on my lap and ate it like pizza slices while I watched “The Blob.” The mellow feeling continued even when the men returned from a successful costume hunt.
Boy, I needed this chill day, I thought to myself in the shower that evening. I took my time, letting the hot water rinse away the last of my tension. The house was quiet, and in my bed — now cleaned and cleared of puking pets — waited a book, a lavender eye mask and a night of uninterrupted sleep, the perfect recipe for a successful Monday. I’m going to knock this week out of the park, I thought, as I dried off, brushed my teeth and turned out the bathroom lights.
Looking back, I wish, at the very least, I’d remembered to bring my robe with me to the bathroom, because I had to walk down the hallway to my room in my birthday suit. Thankfully, everyone had gone to bed, judging by the dark rooms and intense quiet. Nobody had said goodnight, and no doggy tails thumped on the floor. The house seemed to hold its breath.
When the creepy clown jumped out at me from the deep shadows of the stairway, I didn’t run. I couldn’t. I just screamed one awful, agonizing note that shredded the air around me. I screamed so long and so loudly that the clown backed off, not entirely sure what to do with the ear-piercing parent in front of him. I knew it was Andy, of course, and as much as I wanted to stop the howl and beat him with a flip-flop, my vocal cords had to wear themselves out on their own. This was an autonomic response. I was not in control.
When the scream finally petered out, I turned away from the clown and bent over my knees to breathe. And this is never a good look for a naked person, because, by the 40th year of life, most of the troops are marching toward the South Pole, metaphorically speaking. (If you want an art analogy, think less The Birth of Venus and more The Scream.) I never got to inhale, though, because a ghoul popped out of the shadows on the other side of the hallway and roared at me. The deep, baritone bellow sounded a lot like my husband, but once again, my autonomic brain took control and my voice box fired right back up until it finally cracked and died.
They felt bad. At least, that’s what they told me when I ordered them out of my bedroom and slammed the door in their faces. They weren’t truly contrite, though, because I heard them giggling in the hallway. Then the door inched open and they poked their heads in.
“Sorry. It was a joke,” they said.
“Get out,” I said.
“We didn’t think you’d scream so long,” they said.
“Get out,” I said.
“Okay,” they said. “Love you.”
“Get out,” I said.
An entire field of lavender wouldn’t have quelled my anxiety that night. I lay there, electrified by my own nervous system. I slept for two hours, and every time a floorboard creaked, I flinched, convinced my own family waited under my bed to grab my ankles.
Maybe there are two more kinds of people: those who appreciate a bare-assed bushwhacking by two latex-laden loudmouths in a dark hallway and people like me. People who are content never to jump or scream, people who cover their eyes in the movies when the music starts to intensify. People who enjoy Halloween on Halloween night, and then move on to Thanksgiving. For me, the best part of this holiday is stealing my kids’ Snickers bars for the next two weeks when they’re at school. I tried to get on board with Roberts traditions, but the clown thing was too much.
I sat all three of them down at the breakfast table the next morning.
“I’m done,” I said. “No more jump-scares. Go back to tormenting each other.” They apologized quite sincerely, but by the sympathetic look on their faces, I could see I’d failed some test. They knew I wasn’t a jump-scare person, no matter how much they wanted me to be. It was clear their efforts to indoctrinate me into their Halloween culture had failed: I was only a Roberts in name. They patted my shoulders as they went off to school and work, the way you pat a dog when you realize he has no idea why you keep throwing his tennis ball across the yard. Some dogs don’t fetch, and some Roberts don’t bleed orange and purple.
• Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Vandaleer, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at www.laurajacksonroberts.com.