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Halloween Memories: Yarn Wigs and a Monkey Mask

Remembering childhood Halloweens, rain and all


Back in the days before Halloween became an industry — it’s now an occasion to plant “gravestones” in the front yard or a giant inflatable vampire in the driveway, all to frighten trick-or-treaters — my father was achieving the same goal with a simple rubber monkey mask.

In the late 1960s, he bought the mask at our neighborhood drugstore; this was long before the advent of Halloween superstores. Thinking about that now, it seems kind of odd that the drugstore was carrying those types of masks. Ahead of the trend, just like my dad.

My father, a quiet man with a great sense of humor, was a fan of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. The combination of a mask (that covered his head) featuring a pretty realistic monkey face, with a sweater and slacks, was his idea of a successful costume.

He was right. After the sight gag of the front door being opened by “a monkey man,” he’d silently pass out candy, usually Hershey candy bars. Reactions depended on the age of the trick-or-treaters — nervous young ones would hang back, school-age kids were in a hurry to grab the candy and run down the sidewalk and the junior high crowd, and typically the boys, would laugh.

The costume was so successful that it became a Halloween tradition. During the year, there were more than a few times when my parents, out in the front yard, would see a neighborhood kid ride by on a bike on the sidewalk, pointing out to a friend, “That’s where the monkey man lives.” In fact, the monkey man was right there, watering the lawn.

Custom-Made Halloween Costumes

Like my dad, my mom was a Halloween superfan, too. The majority of the costumes worn by my younger brother and me also came directly from the drugstore, back in the day when costumes were packed in a box and an open-eyed mask was the only visible accessory. I had a few of those “box” costumes when I was little; the one above — mysterious princess — was a favorite.

Then came the Halloween when my mom decided to make Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy costumes for my brother and me. I was 6 and he was 3. With all due respect, craft projects weren’t her strong suit.

The centerpieces of these costumes were bright red yarn wigs, which she spent a lot of time working on. Coming from a family where there weren’t craft or sewing projects all around the house, the skeins of red yarn were a novelty, and as far as we could tell, a source of consternation for my mom. Making yarn wigs is no laughing matter.

She purchased the easier pieces — plaid shirts, a pinafore for me, and of course, the lipstick and mascara to draw the doll details on our faces. However, since I grew up in Minnesota where Halloween can be 70 degrees, 30 degrees or somewhere in between, we were also bundled up in white turtlenecks and other layers under the costumes. Because it was cold that night, and that wasn’t all.

Rain and Yarn Wigs Don’t Mix

It’s not uncommon for rain to dampen Halloween festivities. In the year of Raggedy Ann & Andy, “dampen” was an understatement. It poured. Cold rain, wind, leaves whipping through the air. We clung to our treat bags, and to our mom’s hands, as we slogged from house to house in the dark. We were trying to be cheerful because there was candy involved. Even now, I can remember how cold and miserable it was.

Halloween MemoriesIt was miserable for my mom, too, and not just because of the weather. She had worked hard on those wigs; when we were getting ready, we looked adorable in the costumes she had created. (Photos proving that do exist, somewhere.)  So, we persevered.

While the monkey man was happily handing out Hershey bars in a warm house and monitoring the “scary” music on the stereo (yes, he was an early adopter of that trend, too), we came to a house at the other end of the block where the not-very-pleasant woman who lived there slowly opened her door. She looked vaguely annoyed, offering some forced pleasantries about our costumes. And the weather.

By now, our red yarn wigs were literally dripping. Somehow, one of the loops of my wig got caught on the handle of the woman’s screen door, and off flew the soaking wet pile of yarn. I was a shy little girl, and the embarrassment of that surprise, coupled with the unexpected “reveal” of my soaking wet real hair brought me to tears. And my mom realized we’d reached the end of the Halloween road.

The Next Monkey Man

Subsequent years brought different costumes, none of them as carefully made, and as we got older and took charge of our own Halloween destiny, our efforts decreased.

However, my brother’s ultimate costume goal was that monkey mask, and one year, my dad begrudgingly let him take it for a spin around the neighborhood. With his big sister, “Oliver Twist.” I think.

My dad’s been gone for more than 20 years; my brother became the permanent owner of the mask and eventually the “monkey man” in his neighborhood as his own kids were growing up.

And my mom, who lived to be 90, donned a tall, pointy witch hat every Halloween, pairing it with a stylish black turtleneck, when she’d hand out Hershey bars from the climate-controlled comfort of her condo.

By Julie Pfitzinger
Julie has worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years; most recently she was a managing editor for the community lifestyle magazine group at Tiger Oak Media in Minneapolis, where she also served as editor of Saint Paul Magazine. Julie can be reached via email at [email protected]    Follow her on Twitter @juliepfitzinger.

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