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Old-Fashioned Halloween Games and Pranks

Halloween 2000, Volume 2000 Special Issue 2000

In 1883, around the time Halloween was starting to pick up steam in America, one Nebraska newspaper called it "the worldwide holiday of the vicious small boy." Evidently, juvenile vandals had never come out in such force or operated with so much abandonment or glee. Pranks such as smearing doorknobs with tar and removing front gates from fenced yards were all in a day's destruction for would-be Halloween hooligans. For the more ambitious, there was the late nineteenth-century fad of knocking over the outhouse while someone was in it, or dismantling some hapless farmer's wagon and reassembling it on the roof of the local school.

These days it's a little trickier to take apart and reassemble the neighbor's wagon, given that it's probably an SUV. But you can find new delight on Halloween by dusting off some party games and pranks from a time when entertainment was planned for, and indulged in, the company of others.

Ghost Story Pranks
No crowd is better primed for a good prank than one listening to a ghost story in the dark. One perfect stunt for storytelling requires hiding a compatriot outside the house; as soon as the tale reaches a crucial, scary section, he starts to rub a well-rosined bow on a violin string that has been affixed to a windowpane. An eerie, weirdly pitched wail fills the room, but its source is inexplicable. For maximum chills, consider adding this trick to the same story session: Candles are placed around the room. As the story nears its climax, they mysteriously go out, one by one, until the room is dark. To achieve the effect, simply cut the candles in two, remove a small piece of the wick from the middle, then join the pieces back together by heating the cut ends. When a candle burns down to the missing section of wick, it gutters and dies.

Scared yet? No? Then it's time to turn to the ickiest and coolest of all Halloween storytelling pranks: making your friends feel around in a dead man's "guts." Fill a darkened room with blindfolded guests, then take off on Charles F. Smith's circa-1930s "A Hallowe'en Post Mortem," which he wrote for the Boy Scouts: "The truth it is, and not a myth/That once there lived a man named Smith,/And it became his mournful lot/To murdered be quite near this spot./ We now will pass out his remains,You first will handle poor Smith's brains...." At this point, "moist sponges are passed from guest to guest." The verse continues, disassembling poor Smith bit by bit -- his hair (corn silk), his windpipe (a length of uncut boiled macaroni), his hand (a glove stuffed with wet sand) -- until little of him is left to distribute. Never let it be said that Boy Scouts lack a sense of the bizarre.

Harvest Games
When the lights are back on and the ghosts at bay, it's a good time to jump into some less-scary Halloween games. Because the holiday grew out of Celtic harvest festivals, many old-fashioned games involve the fruit of the harvest, mainly apples and nuts. In the lively "apples and flour," a stick about three feet long is secured with rope around the middle and suspended from the ceiling. An apple is tied to one end of the stick and a small cloth bag of flour to the other. The stick is set whirling, and each guest attempts to bite the apple end of the stick. Many guests will be powdered white with flour before the first person bites the apple and wins the prize.

Long ago, October 31 was said to be a time when supernatural forces opened a window to the future. The classic game of bobbing for apples in a tub of water began as a way to predict a player's fortune. In one version of the game, anyone who got an apple would marry. In another, a dime was put in one apple, a ring in a second, and a button in a third, predicting fortune, marriage, and "single blessedness," respectively. Yet another marriage-centric tradition spun off from there: The player who nabbed an apple pared it, trying to keep the peel intact, then tossed the peel over his or her left shoulder: Its shape on the floor would form the first initial of the player's future life-mate.

Today's kids may balk at such a quaint ambition as finding out when you're 7 whom you will marry when you're an ancient 25, but even without mention of marriage, the game's bobbing, splashing, and general hilarity provide plenty of entertainment. If you want to play with fortune-telling, you can change the type of prediction. Or you can just give a prize to the winner. Which brings us to the loser: In many old games, the loser had to perform a "forfeit." This could be a riddle posing as a task, such as, "Leave the room with two legs and come back with six" (i.e., carry a chair back with you), or, "Place three chairs in a row, take off your shoes and jump over them" (a mind-boggling feat, of course, until you realize it's your shoes you're supposed to jump over). An especially good adult forfeit is "perform the egotist" -- drink to your own health and then make an over-the-top speech about your fine qualities. If the speech is deemed insufficiently egotistical, the other guests can demand an even more ridiculous one.

Games of Disguise
Halloween games of disguise survive in many old sources, and they don't necessarily involve elaborate costumes. In "nosey," the party guests are divided into two groups and sent into adjoining rooms. A curtain or heavy sheet with a small slit in it is hung in the doorway. One of the players sticks his or her nose through the slit, making sure nothing else shows. Then the game leader chants, "The witches have stolen somebody's nose. Who does it belong to, do you suppose?" and everyone on the opposing team attempts to guess the owner of the nose. If correct, the guessing team scores a point and the opposing team must present another nose for their regard. If the guess is wrong, then the guessing team must now start offering up noses -- which, it should be noted, can be very hard to recognize without any accompanying features!

A good game for younger children is "the black cat and her kittens." One child is chosen as the black cat and is escorted from the room. The rest of the children then take their places around the table, laying their heads on their arms so that they cannot see anything. The game leader then touches several children on their heads, tapping them as the black cat's kittens. When the black cat is brought back into the room, the kittens meow for their mother, and the mother attempts to locate them by their meows. The first kitten to be found takes the mother cat's place for the next round, but the rest must keep up their meowing until every last kitten is found.

Using classic games and pranks, you can give Halloween back a little more of the fun-loving and ever-so-faintly-malicious spirit it once had. Of course, you don't want to go too far, as did the woman who chose Halloween to give a bank teller a note reading, "Trick or treat. Give me $2,000 or see what kind of treat you'll get." And even moving outhouses can have its risks: In Iowa, the owner of one targeted outhouse tricked some "vicious small boys" at their own game by moving the outhouse before they did. As the boys sneaked up in the dark to play their prank, there was an abrupt whoop and a splash, and, almost as if he were a ghost, one of their number disappeared.

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