Photos: Terror traps and flashbacks as Halloween descends on KC

Halloween 9901

A photo essay and a bit of Halloween reminiscing from our roving photojournalist Jim Nimmo… and a peek at how in 1971 he learned the power of the holiday:

Halloween is the “great equalizer.” Most holidays demand you spend huge amounts of money keeping up with the celebrations of your neighbors, friends, and family. You have to have the most lights and the biggest tree at Christmas. You want the loudest, brightest, most annoying fireworks on the 4th of July. At New Year’s? The most expensive bottle of champagne.

Halloween is different. You can spend hundreds on Amazon after searching for “Halloween outdoors decoration” or whatever. You’ll never make an impression that way. You’ll just be one of the crowd—no matter how many dollars you toss into that pit.

Halloween on a budget is no disgrace. In fact? It’s a gift.

I learned this in kindergarten when the class costume contest was won by the least privileged kid in class. Everyone had a really cool, store-bought costume but him. The problem with store-bought costumes was that somebody else probably bought the same costume as you.

I was H.R. Pufnstuf, and found myself completely horrified to discover my best friend’s mom had bought him the same costume. What an embarrassment. Who could have guessed?

Our class also had multiple Raggedy Annes, several apes from Planet of the Apes, lots of witches, and a couple of Batmans. You can never have enough Batmans, to be fair.

But there was only one Phil.

At that time, I lived on the bad side of town. None of our families had money. But even among us at the lowest rungs of the ladder, we all knew that Phil was worse off than the rest of us. Privately, he’d mentioned that he was terrified of coming to school that day. He knew his family couldn’t buy him a pre-made, store-bought costume. He knew that, by that measure, he wouldn’t fit in. It would just be another example of how he didn’t fit in. For a kindergartener to already be terrified of his socio-economic status? Damn. 

Halloween rolled up. We all came into school with the costumes our parents bought for us from the store, or from the catalogue, or from the catalogue from the store. As mentioned, even among my small class, I wasn’t even the only H.R. Pufnstuf. Sigh.

Even though a number of us knew as children that we were lucking into this whole half-ass professional-looking costume situation, we’d come prepared to raise a faux amount of pity for the kid we knew didn’t feel at home here. It wasn’t Phil’s fault. And what could we do to convince him otherwise? We wanted him to belong, but how do you let a kid know that he’s not an outsider, and have him believe it?

Phil showed up without a costume. In the hallway outside of our room, his mother helped him prepare for entering our class. She dressed him in his older brother’s Sunday church suit coat, which had been ripped apart by their dog beyond repair. It was too big for him and drooped to his knees. Across the front and back of it, she safety-pinned playing cards to the coat. With a burned cork, she applied a layer of “beard stubble” to his face, and put his grandfather’s collapsing hat upon his head.

It was 1971. We were children, and obviously, the costume was insensitive. But the point I took from the day is, I hope, universal. Phil entered the room as an old-timey ride-the-rails hobo. And it won the day. There was no question who the king of Halloween was on October 31, 1971, in my kindergarten class. PHIL.

The heart of Halloween, at its core, is just the celebration of the spark of creativity. And it never hurts to shine a small spotlight on your own personal fears. Phil’s greatest insecurity—amongst a group of kinda shitty kids at a shitty time—became a cause for jubilance. He outdid us all with a dose of macabre humor, having requested this costume from his mother, and the two of them working with all that they had.

Ever since, I’ve known why this holiday matters more to me than any other: it has the power to show who you are inside, based on what you choose to imagine on the outside. There are few opportunities for moments like this, and each year I choose to cherish where I find it.

Phil, wherever you are, I hope you know that you’re still the Halloween hero I aspire to become.

Jim Nimmo shot six diverse KC neighborhoods this week, and how they are celebrating the Halloween season with creative solutions to haunting problems:

Categories: Culture