Real Life

Hearty Halloween

As trick-or-treat time approaches, Annabelle White recalls the entertainment value of the ‘haunted’ house she once lived in.

If you think your approach to Halloween is a little lacklustre, my column this month is for you.

This time of year prompts me to cast my mind back to a period when I was working in Washington DC. My ex-husband and I were lodgers in a large weatherboard 19th-century home that looked like the set for The Addams Family TV series.

The interior was so bizarre, friends at the US State Department laughingly suggested they could use it for recruiting agents. They thought unsuspecting sorts could be taken there as a form of ‘in the field stress test’. If they could handle this house, they could handle anything.

Our landlords were affectionately known as Ma and Pa Barlow. Both in their late 70s, they had lived in this prestigious Chevy Chase neighbourhood for years, and everything in their home was slightly mad. When a TV blew up they just put another on top – there were four stacked up the wall when we lived there, so to watch a programme you had to tilt your head back.

Jars of insects, spiders and teeth lined the cabinets, and the calendar in the kitchen proudly announced it was 1927. Any trip to the Smithsonian museum was indeed a let-down after living in this antiquated house.

You may well ask why live in such a bizarre space for nearly two years?

Yes, the room was inexpensive and in the most beautiful street, but the attraction was that the Barlows were extremely colourful people. I have always found interesting companionship more important than creature comforts.

They kept the house very cool in winter and the air-conditioning was non-existent – to the point I slept on the screened porch on a mattress among the fireflies all summer.

Not short of money, they were millionaires in their own right, but they would only shop at thrift shops, buy bargain food after a few days of freshness, and Ma Barlow could be mistaken for a vagrant when she dressed to do odd jobs around the house and at other properties she owned. “No point getting help when you could do it yourself,” she would say as she threw her tool kit into an old car and roared down the road to fix some leak.

But it was at the end of October that the house became truly memorable. They created the scariest of places – Halloween on steroids!

Of course, they had good base material, but on the pumpkin-festooned porch Pa Barlow would sit in a rocking chair wearing strange glasses, angry false teeth, black cape and Lincoln-like hat, greeting children and parents and encouraging them indoors. Aunt Bee (who had a piercing hearing aid) would rock vacant chairs on the porch with string threaded through the window.

The whole house was plunged into darkness, except for the odd flickering candle, and stuffed figurines known as ‘Uncle Ebenezer and Aunt Esmeralda from the country’ sat on the sofa.

Children were told to close their eyes and feel for ‘veins’ (plates of cooked spaghetti) and ‘eyes’ (peeled grapes). Hanging skeletons, fabric ghosts and cobwebs adorned the house, and Aunt Bee would howl like a werewolf (as she kept pulling the rocking chairs).

Refreshments – punch and stale cookies and sweets – were offered, but the children were never keen. They always left convinced they had indeed visited a haunted house.

On October 31 each year I am often overseas travelling, but I have to admit that when in New Zealand I find it hard to get into the spirit of giving away sweets to ‘children’ big enough to convert my car. I do, however, reflect back and think of the strange joy the Barlows brought to the neighbourhood.

They had the right approach: if you are going to celebrate Halloween, do it with gusto. So this month take inspiration from my tale. I consider myself to be truly blessed to have the memories of those strangely magical times with the Barlows, because such richness of experience is rarely duplicated.

Words by Annabelle White

Photos by Getty Images

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