The first movie I remember watching on TV was the 1941 black-and-white horror film “The Wolf Man.” It was the late 1960s, and I was only 4 or 5 years old. We lived in an apartment on Charter Oak in St. Helena. The movie scared me to the point where I could not sleep soundly for years, fearing that a hairy, claw-fingered hand might slip up silently from under my bed to pull me to my untimely and imaginatively horrid and gruesome death. Even when I was a teenager and into my early 20s as I lay in bed at night I sometimes recalled the hand, and that was enough to cause me to turn the light back on and do a little more reading.
But the film did more than affect my sleep patterns. “The Wolf Man” started my fascination with monsters and all things Halloween-related. Most kids enjoy Halloween, getting excited to dress up as some fantasized character or object, then cruising the neighborhood to score loads of free candy and perhaps throw a few eggs or TP a friend’s house or car. But for me Halloween was more than a one-day event. Over the years the holiday became something my friends and I planned out for weeks in advance.
By the time I entered junior high, my Halloween-loving cohort and I had nearly perfected the event. For days before we constructed an intricate haunted-houselike maze within my garage and devised many Rube Goldberg contraptions that all ended with the guillotining of some innocent stuffed animal. We’d plan and create, work and test our creations out on one another days before the big event, always with the goal of having other friends recoil with surprise and horror.
Then came the Halloween that I came to school early and waited for my friends to arrive. I was without a costume, but in my left hand I held a white box about the size of a pack of cigarettes, cupping it gingerly with my right.
“Lift the lid,” I said in a pained voice to my friend Todd as he approached.
He looked warily into my palm.
He reached slowly toward me and then stopped, considered his actions and weighed the pros and cons. Something hideous must reside within. He knew it.
“What’s in it?” he asked.
The day was brisk and I could feel the cool air on my neck, especially noticeable after a recent haircut. The smell of smoke from a distant burn pile carried with it the aroma of dried leaves and the sweet smell of earth from a recent rain. Ghosts, mummies and witches, along with some more provocatively dressed upper-class boys and girls, lurked around the campus, making me wish every day was Halloween.
Ricky, Steve and Chad joined us, each looking at the pristine white rectangle in my hand.
“Just open it, please,” I said, making my voice as hoarse as possible.
I shook the box a little.
“Come on, Todd, just open the darn box,” said Chad, looking under and around it.
The night before I had cut a hole in the bottom of one of my mother’s jewelry boxes and lined the inside with cotton. Around the hole I added fake blood (I always had tubes of fake blood lying around). Then I slipped my finger up through the hole and bent it back toward me making it look as if I were carrying around a severed finger in the box. I thought it was ingenious, but I also knew that my friends would be expecting more than just a simple gag, so I made a few modifications.
Matt approached the group. He was no ordinary kid. He lived in what was about the closest thing to a haunted house that I’d ever seen, and he was not easily impressed.
“Finger in the box,” he said skeptically and then nonchalantly pulled the lid off.
When the others bent down with amazement toward the bloodied finger I thought, “Cool! I fooled them.”
“Is it real,” Chad asked, his voice hushed.
I nodded slowly.
“Heck no,” Matt said with exasperation. “This gag’s as old as my grandmother. It’s just his finger through a hole in the bottom of the box.”
My friends all let out “aha” sounds that indicated they understood the trick.
As they laughed I looked even more pained and with a hoarser voice, said, “No, really guys, I need to get to the hospital.”
They laughed harder.
“Come on, the gag’s over,” said Steve. “Let’s see the hand holding the box.”
“Yeah, let’s see your finger,” chimed in the others.
The lid of the box remained off and the bloodied finger lay lifeless on the cotton.
“Guys, you’ve got to believe me,” I pleaded. “I need some help, I’m feeling dizzy.”
As I spoke I looked down toward my hand and then at the ground. A stream of blood had started to pour from my hand, forming a pool of sticky red liquid on the dark asphalt beneath me.
My friends stopped laughing.
“Let’s see your hand,” Matt insisted as he reached for the box.
I shuddered in pain as he pulled the box away and my friends stared open-mouthed at the bloodied, fingerless hand that held the box, red liquid streaming from where the finger had been severed.
Matt dropped the box, and the dismembered finger rolled onto the sidewalk. They all stood staring.
Finally, Matt stammered, “But how did you do it?”
A grin crept over my face. It was going to be a great Halloween, but that’s another story.
Originally published in the St. Helena Star, October 2016