Island of Lost Souls

On Chappaquiddick, they were dead serious about having fun on Halloween.

In the 1980s, there were about fifteen kids growing up on Chappaquiddick – a perfect number to fit into a couple of pickup trucks with their parents on Halloween night. We would drive to five or six homes on Chappy to trick-or-treat, households we had arranged with ahead of time. Sally Snipes, a parent of two, says, “It was so fun to get in the back of the pickup. I remember the sky one night on the way to the Marshalls’ – the Big Dipper was so bright and huge. I liked collecting people from their houses, seeing the kids come out in their costumes.” People would invite us into their homes, even the Tylers, who had such a tiny house that we could barely squeeze into it, and they always took a picture of each of the costumed kids. Sally remembers one Halloween when the Woodses’ house had just been finished. “They wanted us to come in, so we all trooped across their white living-room rug, leaving mud tracks. It horrified me to walk across that fancy rug.”

The kids were the usual homegrown witches, warriors, dragons, and princesses – good enough costumes. But it was the adult costumes that were really worth seeing. They revealed little-known aspects of people’s personalities. Certainly, unexpected characters appeared. Sally remembers when her husband, Peter Wells, dressed up as God’s Gift to Women. “He wore a jacket and a tie and his hair was cut really short, so you could see his whole head. I put some lipstick on” – almost a costume in itself for Sally – “and made kiss marks all over his face. Everyone laughed so hard when he would tell them who he was.”

Halloween used to be my favorite holiday. I loved dressing up in bits and pieces of clothing and objects I would find around the house. I was usually some type of demented housewife, wearing narrow, square-rimmed plastic glasses that were in style in 1965. One year I went as the Housewife from Outer Space, wearing my old glasses and a metal sieve on my head, with silver scrubbers dangling from the rim.

My husband Sidney always made an elaborate costume, finishing it at the very last minute as I was trying to hurry the kids out the door. One year, he was a giant cooked lobster, complete with red stuffed potholder claws. His creations often had either no hands or no head. The year he was the Headless Horseman, he wore his long, blue Moroccan robe tied up on top of his head and carried a carved pumpkin under his arm. I went along with these costumes somewhat reluctantly, because I usually had to help him in and out of the truck and lead him around in the dark while keeping track of our kids and how much candy they were hoarding.  

Our group was the only set of trick-or-treaters on Chappy, of course, and there was always an abundance of sugary treats at each house: home-baked cookies and cakes, and bowls of candy bars or popcorn balls. In the early years of mothering, I would let the kids eat as much candy as they wanted on Halloween night, but made them give the rest of their booty to their Uncle Curry, who had a prodigious sweet tooth and was glad to help out in the fight against childhood tooth decay. When they got older, the kids rebelled and kept their treats in the freezer, eating candy every day for months.

The high point for all of us came during the years we set up haunted houses. Over a period of four or five years, they were set up at a house, then a barn, and finally, at the Chappaquiddick Community Center. It’s hard to describe the preparations and creativity of these Chappy adults, all for the enjoyment of a few kids – or maybe for themselves! I doubt if Peter Wells ever had more fun than when he was walking around, roaring his chain saw, looking ready to dismember anyone who came near. Lil Province was already disassembled on a nearby card table, her head resting on the table top with a couple of arms and legs lying nearby. It wasn’t at all clear – at least right away – that Peter’s saw was chainless, because the blade bar was edged with tinfoil and red yarn that shimmered and waved in the breeze. Nor did we notice right away that Lil’s head was actually sticking through the table and the spare limbs belonged to a mannequin.        

In the first haunted house at Joe and Mary Cressys’, I remember being led into the bathroom, with my daughter’s hand in mine, and both of us giving what must have been the most gratifying squeals of fear. Woody Filley was dressed up in some ghoulish outfit, beckoning us in while pulling back the shower curtain to introduce us to his recent acquisition: Allen Slater, lying in the tub dressed in a wet suit and rubber boots, covered in blood or something like it.
Sally Snipes remembers crawling with her daughter Molly through a long tube where spiders dangled in their faces, and at the end, Peter, with a stocking pulled down over his head, was running the chain saw, ready to chop off their heads with the tinfoil blade. She says, “I shrieked with delighted fear and then really laughed,” and adds, “I never liked Halloween, but those days made me enjoy it.”

The next year, the haunted house moved to the Joneses’ barn where Joe, dressed as Dracula, greeted us, and his unexpectedly expired son-in-law, Jude Bishop, sat up suddenly in the coffin he had built especially for the occasion. At the community center, there was more room for ghoulishness. That year, the moaning and wailing sounds coming through Bob Fynbo’s sound system were enough to keep the more fainthearted from even entering the building.
If you managed to get yourself and your kids inside – and not everyone did – the first thing you saw was a lively corpse hanging by its neck from a rafter. In a curtained-off area nearby, a demented doctor, Peter MacRae, had been operating on the draped figure of Lil, who seemed to be severely diseased. Peter was waving around a tray of bloody organs that had already been removed, and Lil was loudly shrieking for her liver.

These were no sissy haunts – these were of nightmare quality, even for grownups. That year at the community center, the ghoulish scenes were so extreme that they may have worried even the people who acted them out – how far into fiendish humor would they descend the next Halloween? After that year, the haunted houses on Chappy died out and the kids grew up or started trick-or-treating in town. It’s sad that we adults had to grow up, too – I miss the fun of dressing up and acting out my alter ego.