Ideas for a not-so-scary Halloween party

It was 40 years ago when the movie “Halloween” unleashed buckets of blood, slashers and serial killers onto America’s darkened streets, changing the way we celebrate fright night.

The playful ghosts, witches on broomsticks, smiling jack-o’-lanterns and black cats long emblematic of Halloween gave way to Freddy Kruegers, Michael Meyers, ravenous zombies and an ever-increasing competition for guts and gore. Haunted houses were replaced by houses of horror.

But some people are dialing back to a quainter holiday, where Halloween might stir up a few fun shivers but not a massive heart attack.

Sheana Davis and her husband, Ben Sessions, decided to start a new tradition this year - the “Not Scary Halloween Party,” a multi-generational block party where everyone on their street in Boyes Hot Springs is welcome to stop by for old-fashioned fun and games and nobody has to worry about seeing dead people, save for a friendly skeleton or two.

Davis said it’s the way she celebrated Halloween back when her now-grown daughter was a child.

“She was not a scary fan. No scary movies and no scary costumes,” she said. So Davis, a chef and cheesemaker, went for more benign amusements.

And this year she wants to revive that tradition for the many kids who, in the past year, have moved onto her street.

She’ll bake a big lasagna for kids and their parents and treats like dirt worm cupcakes (Gummi worms coming out of crushed Oreos), Halloween Marshmallow Spiders and Mummy Brie.

As for decorations, there will be lots of pumpkins and squash, cinnamon broomsticks, orange and purple string lights and “Happy Halloween” signs. After going out on a fruitless search for G-rated Halloween decorations, Davis ran into friends who had given up on their annual party tradition and handed over a whole treasure trove of old decorations they no longer needed..

Although a lot of fussy parents worried about germs have abandoned bobbing for apples, Davis plans to fill a tub with shallow water so kids can get a grip on their apples by pushing them to the bottom without drowning.

She’s not alone in her yearning for a simpler Halloween. Retailers like World Market are selling whole lines of retro-style Halloween decor mindful of the 1950s and earlier, featuring owls, witches, black cats, bats, spiders and smiling skeletons. The Beistle Co., which has been making party supplies for more than a century, has brought out from its vaults reproductions of early Halloween party items, like crepe paper centerpieces first sold in 1929, back cat cutouts and a pumpkin Fortune Telling Game.

“It’s not overly cutesy also not extra creepy gory. It’s spooky, classic, nostalgic and timeless,” said collector Jenn Fisher of the appeal of vintage Halloween collectibles. In addition to her own collection of old-timey Halloween memorabilia like tin litho noisemakers, she maintains a Vintage Halloween website out of her Arizona home featuring history, lore, party tips and retro merchandise for sale.

In the early and mid-20th century Halloween decorations and cards had sinister but somehow whimsical graphics and could be no scarier than a witch’s cauldron, an old house under a full harvest moon, a barren tree with twisty branches. They were cardboard cutouts, crepe paper and papier-mache.

Every year Fisher throws a Nancy Drew party, where the theme is mystery and not murder. Remember the girl sleuth in the old days went after jewel thieves, smugglers, kidnappers and mobsters, not serial killers.

Halloween, coming at the end of harvest, has been an ever-changing holiday, starting with the earliest Celtic Samhain festivals marking that time of the year when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and dead were blurred, allowing the dead to return to earth.

In Colonial times a distinctively American version of the old-fashioned harvest and spirit celebrations began taking shape, with play parties and public events to mark the harvest that included sharing ghost stories, telling fortunes, singing, dancing and mischief-making, according to the History Channel website, The American Halloween tradition of “trick-or-treating” probably harkens back to the early “All Souls’ Day” parades in England when the poor would beg for food and be given “soul cakes” in return for prayers for their dead relatives. By the late 1800s, there was a move in America to make Halloween more about friendly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft.

Ellyn Pelikan is 73, but still celebrates Halloween much as she did as a child in the 1950s and as a young mother in the late 1960s and 1970s. And some of the Victorian traditions she carries on came down to her from her mother, who was born in 1910.

Every year, she invites a group of old friends, some going back decades, to an old-fashioned Halloween party at her rural Sebastopol home. It’s a trip back to a more benign Halloween when scary was a dancing skeleton and maybe a ghost. Pelikan has saved many decorations for decades, like cardboard cutouts going back to the 1960s, a ceramic witch with the black paint rubbed off and a crepe paper pumpkin clown.

They play the same games they played as girls: tossing bean bags into a plastic pumpkin and pin the nose on the pumpkin blindfolded. “Hopefully they don’t fall into the wood stove,” Pelikan quipped. “I haven’t lost one yet.”

One old tradition she won’t abandon is the “divinations” or “fortune telling” games that she learned from her mother, who was “hugely into Halloween,” and passed on the old parlor games of her girlhood, many centered around matchmaking and finding a husband.

“You can do it in different ways with different things. One involves taking an apple peel. Each person peels an the apple, hopefully coming out with one complete peel.

“You take it and throw it over your right shoulder. It’s supposed to land and tell you your true love’s first name. These were designed for young girls looking for husbands so I have to switch them up for old crones,” she laughed.

She decorates her table with not-too-scary skulls and serves butternut squash soup and potluck dishes.

What Pelikan learned from her mother is that parties can be fun and festive without costing a lot of money. Her mother used to go out and gather cattails and wheat and grasses to make up harvest decorations for Halloween and Pelikan does the same thing, putting together attractive arrangements by “shopping” her own landscape.

So here are some tips for simple, old fashioned “not too scary” Halloween fun.

Marshmallows or Apples on a String Game: Sheana Davis suggests hanging big marshmallows on strings just above contestant’s heads and have them jump to retrieve them. The first one to get their marshmallow wins the round. Pelikan plays the same game using tiny pumpkins hung from the ceiling with fishing line. Whoever can grab a bite of the apple wins.

Noisemakers: These little metal toys were popular for parties back in the day. They click, whistle and rattle. These can be found at antique stores, especially around Halloween and on sites like Etsy and eBay. There are also many inexpensive reproductions of vintage and antique Halloween items. Just be sure not to pay antique prices for a repro. Mark Ledenbach of Orangevale has the premiere collector’s site:

Make Your Own Scarecrow: You don’t need to spend money buying a scarecrow. Just create a form with sticks, like broom handles or closet dowels. Dress the sticks in old clothes - overalls with an old work shirt is perfect. Stuff the clothing with newspaper and have it coming out of the sleeves and legs. You can make a ghoulish head out of papier-mache. Make your own papier-mache with paper strips soaked in paste or white glue and applied to a round object like an old ball or a ballon. When it’s dried, paint any way you want. You can also make papier mache out of flour and water. Or use a white pillowcase around a ball (or stuff it), to make a head that you can then paint or draw on with markers.

Bean Bag Tosses: Bean bags can be sewn easily with any leftover fabric or old clothes. But you can also toss pennies or other light objects, into a black cauldron or a plastic pumpkin filled with goodies.

Riddle Games: Pelikan grabs dumb riddles off the Internet, writes them out and passes them around the table. Everybody gets to share a few for laughs and as a party icebreaker.

Fortune Telling: You don’t have to take it seriously to have fun making up outlandish fortunes by “reading” palms or tea leaves or Tarot cards.

Caramel apples: These are easy treats to make - melt caramels, dip the apples and dunk in nuts. But Sheana Davis makes it even easier for kids to dunk their own. She cuts the apples first and puts the melted caramel out so guests can dip their own apple slices into caramel sauce.

Fisher’s website offers a whole page of tips for putting on an old school Halloween party.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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