For the past five seasons, my nephew, Aidan, has celebrated Halloween with a yearly jaunt to Boo at the Zoo. Each year decked out in his carefully selected costume, partially covered by a wind-breaker of course, and flanked with an alternating cast of family (his mom, aunt, uncles and sometimes granny) Aidan’s off to the zoo for a fun-filled evening of spooktacular festivities: trick or treating, animal exhibits, haunted trails, and magic shows. Over those five little outings, Boo at the Zoo has become a welcome fall tradition in a family of very non-traditional people. Enter our sixth excursion to Boo at the Zoo where, according to the website, the format had been altered to now consist of an afternoon rather than evening of activities including “many of the same great events, shows, games and candy PLUS more.” When I read the words “plus more” I assumed there would be additional Halloween attractions in comparison to the year before. No dice. To be fair, this past weekend was not the best for outdoor carousing. It had been sprinkling all morning and the weather reports had promised more of the same, but, not wanting to base any plans on fickle Texas weather or break our October ritual, we carried on not knowing the weather would be the least of our grievances. That first twinge of doubt regarding the retooled (emphasis on tool) version of Boo at the Zoo came when I realized that by holding the event during park hours they could charge zoo admission plus an additional fee per person for the boo. I see the marketing department worked overtime on this one. But what are you gonna do? We had an eager kid, looking positively adorable in his Super Mario Bros. costume.
Once inside, we noticed no distinguishing marks of anything Halloween other than the odd dazed kid in a cape or face paint. No spider webs, no smoke machine, no zoo employees dressed as koalas or tigers. Not even a sign explaining where to go. Nothing. Only after Mom asked an idling employee were we directed towards the exhibition area where the supposed onslaught of holiday fun was to commence. There, hidden away in the back trails of the park, the Boo at the Zoo pavilion could be heard long before it was seen. I’d like to say it was the sweet synthetic sounds of a creepy haunted house CD, but no, it was some pitiful “singer” working a one-off gig for which she felt she didn’t need to put forth much effort doing a painful rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” For those of us familiar with the original version of this Cyndi Lauper hit, this was the most horrifying part of the experience. After paying the additional charge and finally understanding where the “PLUS more” came in, we were each handed our trick r treat bags and candy coupons as we entered a fenced in Astroturf area with two large tents. Surrounding these tents were six candy stations, three on either side, each set no more than ten feet from each other unlike years before when the stations were actually spaced apart between animal exhibits mimicking the act of trick or treating at houses. These new convenient candy huts were more like elaborate feeding troughs than a fun family Halloween experience. Under the first tent was a series of folding chairs and a junior high pop-up stage where our featured songstress was now belting out a warped variation of “I Want Candy” with solos sung at random by unsuspecting children. I tuned out completely once the conga line broke out.
Still, it was about the kids and in an effort to keep Aidan enthusiastic about the scene, the four adults (Mom, Bridgette, Michael and I) kept a cheery demeanor as we lead him to and away from candy posts. Beneath the second, larger tent we found where the meat of this party really was…a jazz band straight out of Vaudeville, pin-striped suits and all playing a good but unwarranted rendition of “When You’re Smiling.” Along the outer rim sat a series of booths: tattoos, miniature golf, football toss, bracelet making and pumpkin decorating…the most Halloweenesque of the lot. Aidan did his best; surveying the area, adding a few decorative touches to a mini pumpkin, but never looking as though he was comfortable with being herded into the kid proof corral. Suddenly, just as prophesized a storm broke loose sending a gaggle of little kids in costume running for dear life, sequins and faux fur flying, arms flapping, screaming in panic their trick or treat bags now a pool of sugary goodness. To think, they were so terrified in such a happy holiday setting. Tragic. As the storm grew angrier, we all huddled at the center-most point of the tent in an effort to avoid being drenched. Its anchors bowed in strain against the wind and rain, water flooding the circle of kiosks that surrounded the pavilion, a heavy set woman in a penguin costume (I wish this weren’t true) waddled about barefoot and the jazz band played on. It was like Titanic (1997) but with slightly less hope. Shortly there after one of the many Boo at the Zoo personnel urged us to leave in favor of the reptile preserve as they weren’t completely sure the tent would hold. Now, properly soaked, the five us started for the exit, Michael took the lead with Aidan, ever the optimist, skipped the whole way. Turns out the most chilling draw Boo at the Zoo had to offer was one we could have enjoyed for free.
But the de-horrification of Halloween is happening everywhere not just Boo at the Zoo. Target’s Halloween theme?…Children looking elated in cutesy witch, werewolf and princess getups. The books featured on the Halloween (and I use the term loosely) displays at Barnes & Noble are all distinctly more baby bumpered than last year. Even Aidan’s elementary school is now requiring their students to have a book in support of their costumes, going so far as to call the district’s Halloween celebration “Character Day.” I don’t know if this is a result of conservative grandstanding or corporate America’s guesstimation of how to please the masses, but we’re losing Halloween. These people who have such a problem with children hearing ghost stories or dressing as Jason or Freddy, are the same people who grew up with the freedom to enjoy a Halloween unmarred by bureaucratic propaganda. Obviously, they turned out alright if they now consider themselves to be a fit moral compass for the younger generation. Do as I say, not as I do, right? I get that there some aspects of Halloween that may be inappropriate for kids…just as there is with everything. Go ahead have options available for toddlers and preschoolers, but don’t dumb down an entire holiday to avoid having to actively participate in being a parent. Not everything will be doused in rainbows and glitter in order to keep it “kid friendly” for your little angel. Halloween, long believed to be a time when the barrier between the dead and the living is lifted, is now a chance to dress in costume, feast on miniature versions of your favorite candies and explore that which scares you. Part of the penance for the elaborate attire and free sweets is being a little frightened. If it’s one you’re not willing to pay, stay home. Throw on some Sponge Bob. Don’t celebrate. You can have Christmas, but leave Halloween alone.