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Creating ghost stories rooted in childhood experiences

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow

Dolly Withrow is a retired English professor and the author of four books. Contact Dolly at

Standing before a swivel mirror, my mother leaned her tall frame over the darkly varnished dresser as she applied heavy pancake makeup. Leaving circles of white around her brown eyes, she widened her lips with red lipstick. Ocie and Sissy, my aunts, were also painting their faces so as not to be recognized on a night they had long anticipated. The trio wore men's tattered trousers, plaid flannel shirts and old shoes. After all, it was Halloween in America, where during the early '40s adults customarily celebrated the holiday. By the mid-1940s, though, an increased number of children were participating in Halloween while the number of costumed adults was diminishing. In our household, adults in the early '40s still looked forward to being anything they wanted to be on Halloween night.  

After adding the finishing touches to their costumes, my mom and two aunts walked from North Charleston to the West Side. With other adults, they paraded up and down the sidewalks of Washington Street, which they referred to simply as "the street." It was an unplanned parade, but custom ensured its repetition each October. After the parade, the beer joints filled to capacity. There, amid clouds of cigarette smoke and the aroma of beer, many revelers escaped briefly from hardscrabble lives as they ordered Falls City beer in long-necked brown bottles. 

Although costumes could be purchased as early as 1930, in our community people made their own.  Moreover, there were no outside decorations — no ghosts or goblins hanging from the skeletons of bare-boned tree limbs. When I was old enough to participate, my friends and I walked to the North Charleston USO where a costume contest was held. We never won, for our costumes had also been made from anything we could find in our homes. We nonetheless enjoyed looking at all the creative outfits as contestants marched single file around a large room. Afterward, there was a huge bonfire in the nearby field. I can still see bright flames licking skyward and smell the burning scraps of wood. I can still hear the tinkling laughter and the high-pitched squeals of excited children.

Treats were first given in our country when farmers offered them in an effort to thwart tricksters. Farmers had grown weary of finding at first light overturned outhouses.

At some point, a separate night was set aside for trick-or-treat, so, wearing our paper false faces, we children knocked on doors. One year, a woman threatened to pour scalding water on us if we didn't get off her porch. Running quickly away, we were fearfully delighted because we had come face-to-face with a genuine witch during the witches' special night. Using the word "witch" is now offensive (we've become ever so sensitive), but I'm trusting the good witches out there have a terrific sense of humor. 

Many years later, I am lucky enough to continue the ghostly games each fall. Although Halloween has become commercialized, our son, daughter and spouses know how to make costumes and haunt the nearby woods. Each year, they plan a big party, and I write the ghost story. Ghosts, goblins, spiders and snakes creep over a landscape washed golden by an autumn moon. In the eerie forest, pine trees cast long dark shadows. 

My skills at writing ghost stories are rooted in childhood when I sat on the front porch during balmy evenings and listened to family members tell stories of "real" ghosts. Now, before each party as I lean toward the mirror and apply Halloween makeup, I am reminded of a night more than half a century earlier when my mother applied her pancake makeup.