Confession: after the village children we knew grew up and stopped coming around at Hallowe’en, Cam and I got a bit overwhelmed by the onslaught of little strangers, all 300 of them, who were dropped in the village like litters of kittens and had depleted our supply of goodies by 7:00 Hallowe’en eve. It felt awful to hover inside in the darkness while they continued to pound on the door.
So one year we loaded a basket with wine and chocolate, pulled pillowcases over our heads, and drove up a long roadway to the isolated home of friends who always stocked some treats, but never had any children come to their house. They recovered quickly from the shock of two large (giggling) hooded figures at the door, and a new custom began, with the four of us sharing a Hallowe’en dinner at their place every year. By the time we returned to the village, all would be quiet.
But things change, and there are strangers in their house this year.
So, curious about the haunted barn that for the past six years has been drawing crowds to Bev McNeil’s place in Sydenham, I went over the day before Hallowe’en to find out more.
Bev’s daughters, Cathy and Lauren, whom I remember coming to our door as children, were in the final stages of preparation for an event they had been planning all year. This year’s theme was a haunted toy store. Cast members would be arriving the next day around 4:00 to get into make-up and costumes.
“We all take part, and our husbands, children and their friends,” says Lauren. Somewhere in the course of our conversation Cathy says that one of the hardest last-minute jobs is helping everyone get their makeup on in time. I offer to help. “I yell a lot and can get pretty snarky when the pressure’s on,” says Cathy, looking at me dubiously. I say I can do stage makeup and as a former waitress, am very used to working under pressure and being yelled at. That’s how I signed up at the haunted barn as an embedded journalist, so to speak.
This afternoon, Bev’s big house was alive with people of all ages from six weeks olds to seniors. Wigs and costumes were upstairs, people were everywhere. Everyone seemed to have a pretty good idea of their character, and Cathy opened out an impressive make-up kit in the middle of the kitchen, a large old-fashioned central room with plenty of space. Some did their own make-up, others sat down at the table and Cathy pulled up pictures of the makeup needed: Raggedy Ann & Andy, a mechanical monkey, a demented six-foot rabbit, a Jack-in-the box, a cracked porcelain doll. Mountains of pizza arrived and disappeared.
Nobody yelled, though the clown, the rabbit and the teddy bear all complained their masks were hot and stuffy. Cathy and Lauren gave last-minute coaching to the actors, a borrowed popcorn machine was set up at the exit from the barn, beside the visitors book. Everyone who came through the barn would be rewarded with a bag of popcorn. Friends arrived to hand out trick-or-treat candies at the front door of the house. By 6:00 when the first visitors arrived, everyone was in their place. There were about 24 costumed characters, including Cathy, Lauren and Bev herself.
I loved my trip through the barn, could hardly stop grinning, for there were surprises around every corner; lighting and sound effects were great; everyone was wonderful and would indeed have been scary, had I not known every line on their faces. Before long, the crowds had started to arrive, and more than one came out of the barn and slipped to the end of the line to do it again.
The haunted barn is free, a gift to the community from the McNeil clan: any money put in the donation jar goes into the Loughborough Christmas and Emergency fund. Bev McNeil is one of the five volunteers who for many years have been organizing the Christmas food baskets for local families.
As I walked home across the village, the sidewalks were crowded with costumed children and adults. At many houses, people had set up tables with candy on their front lawns. St Paul’s church had a long table on the sidewalk with treats and chocolate for the children and coffee for the grown-ups. One home had a large tent-like entrance to their front door, another a huge fire-breathing dragon on the roof.
Tom and Dorothy’s front lawn was, as always, colourful and spooky. A police car cruised slowly along the streets, blasting out music from ‘Ghostbusters’. The moon was nearly full and though it was chilly, there was no rain.
By 9:00 all was quiet again.