Why Ghosts are so Bad at Telling Jokes

Halloween is nearly upon us, which means it’s that time of year when we all better be prepared for little costumed ghouls and goblins to knock on our doors, throw flour in our faces, and tell us they hate us before scurrying off to dance wildly about the leaping flames of a bonfire in the middle of the street.

Or maybe not. I recently watched the musical movie Meet Me in St. Louis for the first time, which in itself is a shock, given that I live just outside of St. Louis and have been known to join in a singalong of the title song with 40,000 or so of my closest friends at sporting events in the city. But that’s nothing compared to the shock of the film’s depiction of a typical St. Louis Halloween celebration circa 1903, as experienced by Agnes and Tootie, dressed as a “horrible ghost” and a “terrible, drunken ghost.”

Of course, the mother in me had a visceral reaction to the scene, which is rude and scary and feels terribly dangerous. And I was also confused, because that is not how Halloween is done in St. Louis today. In fact, one of the more charming things about the city is that we have a really sweet and innocent and fairly unique tradition on Halloween night.

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

Now, it’s not uncommon to see neighbors gathering around fire pits, sipping hot chocolate and handing out candy, but in the nearly eight Halloweens I’ve been here, I’ve never once come across a gang of children tossing furniture into a bonfire in the middle of the street. And while I suppose we do get the occasional horrible ghost or terrible, drunken ghost that shows up to ask for a Halloween treat, I usually see a lot more Disney princesses and superheroes than anything else.

The best part is that almost all of our costumed visitors come prepared with a joke or two to share. I’m talking scary awful, groan-worthy jokes, like the kind you would read in a bubblegum wrapper or like the kind that might encourage you to give someone a piece of candy just so they’ll go away.

Image by Pixaline from Pixabay

Not every kid will tell one. There are always some who are too little or too shy or too nonverbal, and that’s okay. Our candy distribution is not dependent on anyone’s joke-telling prowess, but it is a fun little tradition and no one really knows for sure how it got started.

The best guess comes from local folklorist John Oldani who believed it descended from an influx of Irish immigrants holding onto remnants of the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain. A lot of Halloween traditions were likely influenced by Samhain, including costumes, pumpkin carving, bonfires, and the offering of a song or poem or even a joke in exchange for a fun size Snickers.

No one seems to know why this took hold so firmly in the St. Louis area and not really elsewhere, except that perhaps the city started encouraging it as an alternative to pranks and vandalism and bonfires in the middle of Kensington Avenue. It seems to have arisen alongside trick-or-treating itself around 1940 or so. Maybe it was even a reaction to the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis that convinced the mothers of St. Louis that we needed a little more charm to our Halloween.

However it happened, the city has embraced it and come Halloween night, I’m pretty sure I’m going to hear some truly awful jokes. Maybe I’ll get lucky and hear some poems, too. And there’s probably a full-size candy bar in it for any terrible, drunken ghost that sings “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley.”

If you’ve got a good (or bad) Halloween joke, I’d love to hear it!

Socially Distant Zombies

In August of 1905 author Albert Neely Hall published his very helpful handbook, The Boy Craftsman: Practical and Profitable Ideas for a Boy’s Leisure Time. I can’t find a lot of information about Hall except that he was born in 1883, he wrote a number of books about handicrafts for both boys and girls, and he was probably not a guy I would have hired to babysit.

His book for boys with too much time on their hands in some ways reads a bit like a Boy Scout manual with instruction about tool safety, clubhouse building, photography, and animal trapping. It includes suggestions for ways boys can use their time to earn a little cash by shoveling snow, making simple home repairs, and editing and printing a neighborhood newspaper.

Ok, Mr. Hall. I can be down with this. Image by Victoria_Borodinova from Pixabay.

It also provides helpful tips for how your average, rambunctious early 20th century boy can celebrate the 4th of July by making his own pyrotechnics. To be fair, Hall does recommend against designing one’s own Roman candle because that could be dangerous. Instead, he suggests a handy method of lighting firecrackers suspended from a kite and a grand finale involving a kerosene-soaked board stuffed with firecrackers. Because safety is important.

But it’s the section on Halloween that has me most concerned today. After a brief introduction about the history of Halloween which, as a sort of history blogger who does consistently shoddy research, I can safely say is pretty shoddy, it begins: “This is the only evening on which a boy can feel free to play pranks outdoors without danger of being ‘pinched.’”

But if some little monster were to carry off my front gate, I wouldn’t be as down with that. Image by roneidaselva from Pixabay

Hall goes on to list such pranks as scaring passers-by, ding-dong ditching, carrying off neighbors’ gates, and piling garbage in front of doors. It’s worth it, he says, because even if he catches some heat, “the punishment is nothing compared with the sport the pranks have furnished him.” He then presents plans for building and pulling off pranks that will both frighten and enrage your neighbor.

I realize that an occasional prank has long been associated with our spookiest holiday, but for those of us who stock the good candy and hand it out without question to six-foot-tall ghosts, it’s not usually much of a problem. And usually, there’s lots of more innocent fun, of the variety Albert Neely Hall would certainly not approve, to go around and keep kids with too much time on their hands from engaging in pranks that, despite claims to the contrary, put them in danger of getting pinched.

Is anything really all that scary if it can’t get closer to you than six feet? Image by Tyler Buchanan from Pixabay

But now that it’s October and my neighborhood is sprouting Styrofoam gravestones, the pumpkins are wearing toothy grins, and Halloween is looming, I find myself wondering about what the holiday might look like this year.

A lot of municipalities are planning to cancel trick-or-treating amid concerns of spreading Covid-19, clubs and churches are avoiding the large gatherings encouraged by trunk-or-treating, and even haunted houses are inflicting social distance rules on their ghouls, goblins, and chain-saw-wielding mass murderers, effectively placing their guests inside a decidedly not scary safety bubble with a six-foot radius.

It could be a strange Halloween.

I’m not suggesting that these are bad ideas. I just wonder, as I encounter advertisements touting thoroughly sanitized blood and guts and socially distant zombies at the local Townhouse of Terror, if the restrictions and strangeness of the holiday will encourage a return to the pranks of the past that probably gave rise to many of the less harmful alternative activities in the first place.

What I do know is that when Albert Neely Hall wrote his book he was in his very early twenties and probably didn’t have children of his own, or at least not ones old enough to celebrate Halloween by terrorizing others. As the mother of a couple of boys, I can assure you (and my neighbors) that in my house the sport would most certainly not be worth the punishment.