The Sounds of Halloween

When I was a kid, my dad always made big plans for Halloween. We had the paper skeletons in the windows and the jack-o-lanterns on the front porch, but he wanted to do something more impressive. Of course, this was the 1970s, long before there was a seasonal Halloween super store on every corner and Hollywood-style special-effects gadgets available to the public. If you wanted something more than, well, paper skeletons and jack-o-lanterns, you had to figure out how to make it yourself. Like the time a neighbor of ours turned his barn into a “haunted attraction,” or, as we called ’em back then, a spook alley. (Basically, he would lead neighborhood kids on a twisty path through the barn while older kids in rubber fright masks jumped out from behind farm equipment and hay bales to scare the little ones. It was pretty primitive compared to what you could do these days, but it was effective.)

Dad’s ideas weren’t quite so grandiose as that. He wasn’t the sort to try and organize a small army of young helpers; instead his ideas focused on things he could do by himself. For example, he used to talk about getting a refrigerator box from Mortensen’s Furniture Store, painting it to look like a coffin, and setting it up on the front porch, so he could “rise” for the trick-or-treaters. Then there was his idea to put together a Headless Horseman outfit and ride our ghostly white horse Thunder through the dark subdivision streets behind our house, just so he could be seen. Sadly, neither of those schemes ever went anywhere. Dad worked the afternoon shift back in those days  — 2 to 11 PM — so he often wasn’t around on Halloween night.

But one of his ideas that did come to fruition was to rig up a speaker in the front-room window and play a record of spooky sound effects to set the mood for trick-or-treaters as they approached the house. As I recall, the record included the usual Halloween-ish fare like rattling chains, moans, and creaking doors, and also since this was in the post-Star Wars late ’70s, there were some “spacey” sounds like flying saucers landing and rayguns zapping. And somewhat incongruously, there was the sound of a giant gong ringing. I myself never found that to be especially frightening — I associated it with the old movies I saw on TV, actually — but based on the reaction of one small child, at least, I may have been wrong about that.

I remember sitting on the couch the Halloween we played that record, looking out the window as the kid timidly mounted the front steps of our house. His mother waited back on the sidewalk for him, and thinking about it with an adult’s perspective, I realize this was probably a big night for him… the first time he’d had the courage to venture out on his own a bit, perhaps the first time his mom had loosened the apron strings enough to let him do it. The kid had to stand on his tippytoes and stretch out his index finger to reach the doorbell… and by coincidence, just at the instant he pressed the button, that gong crashed out of the speaker and rolled into the night. The kid seemed to contract into himself like an accordion as he pivoted on one foot and ran screaming back to his mother. My own mother opened the front door and tried to lure him back for his candy, but the kid was too traumatized to set foot anywhere beyond the edge of our front lawn. I didn’t know whether to laugh or feel sorry for him. And now, over 30 years later, I really hope our inadvertent prank didn’t set back his development somehow.

You know, it’s odd… as many childhood relics as I can easily lay my hands on, I have no idea whatever happened to that record. I imagine my mom has it tucked away some place, or at least I hope she does. Because I really did love it. Not for the sound effects, fun though they were. But they were only one side of the LP. No, what I really loved was the ghost story on the other side of the album, which was like an old-time radio show with actors and sound effects painting creepy, hair-raising pictures in our minds. I must’ve listened to that side of the album a thousand times, even well after the month of October was over, giving myself a good case of the creeps in the middle of the summertime.

I don’t know what made me think of that record earlier this week. It’s probably been decades since I’ve seen or heard it. But some confluence of the decorations around the house or the movies I’ve been watching to get in the seasonal mood, or perhaps just the slanting, guttering light and fragile warmth of an October day… something jarred loose an old memory. And so, without even recalling the title of this ancient piece of ephemera, I started googling… and as ever, I found myself utterly amazed by what you can find out there in the back alleys and hole-in-the-wall curiosity shoppes that comprise the InterWebs.

It turns out I’m not the only one with fond memories of this record, as it was ridiculously easy to track down. It was called Halloween Horrors: The Sounds of Halloween (and Other Useful Effects), released in 1977 by A&M Records, serial number SP-3152, with cover art by a guy named Gary Meyer. And here it is:

Halloween Horrors_LP_front-cover

And here’s the back cover:

Halloween Horrors_LP_back-cover

I even found a version without the credits, so you can appreciate that fantastic illustration:

Halloween Horrors_LP_back-cover-no-credits

Isn’t that great? I love this album’s artwork, and I now recall spending a lot of time studying it as a boy. These illustrations are, to me, the very essence of Halloween: not the intense, deeply disturbing stuff that haunted attractions and horror films have turned into, but more the decrepit-house-on-the-hill Gothic sort of thing.

And now, here’s the most unexpected find of all, the piece de resistance… the actual story from the album, digitized and YouTubed for our modern convenience:

Children of the ’80s ought to pay especially close attention as they listen to that. Does the voice of the gas station attendant sound familiar? It should… that’s Peter Cullen, who played Optimus Prime in the old Transformers cartoon and continues to bring life to that character in the Michael Bay films today! As I said, the things you can discover out there on the Web…