The sky burns orange around its edges. Fallen leaves crunch like candy wrappers under foot. And ally cats arch ominously before freshly-hewn jack-o'-lanterns.
Yes, friends, it's that time again.
Halloween is surely one of our strangest cultural holidays, one without proven origin, denomination or moral imperative. Some claim that Halloween comes from pagan times, from hoedowns celebrating the end of the summer harvest. Others say that it started with early Christian rites. To me, Halloween seems contrived by children for children, a wild-eyed scheme plotted after all rational-minded adults had left the room. How else can we explain this touched-in-the-head tradition of sullying our homes with cotton gauze, donning absurd costumes and threatening our peaceable neighbors for candy?
Whatever the cause, Halloween brings out strange and playful things in people, no more so than the Hanover Avenue Gang in Richmond's Fan District. Last year, they built a castle, garnished with portcullis and mural towers, and attended by knights in Arthurian armor. This year, they turned a haunted mansion inside-out. One house is now a hell-raising dungeon; another, a haunted hallway. From even numbers houses to odd, you'll find a room for every fright - gallery, attic, kitchen, ballroom -- and, rest uneasy, a few graveyards unearthed for good measure.
In the height of the Halloween construction boom last weekend, the sidewalks on Hanover looked like the wharves of an old New England whaling town. I watched as one neighbor measured a passerby for a pine-plank coffin, and another dangled flickering lanterns from the tree-tops. They sawed and hammered, stretched tight their canvases, mashed blood-red berries for paint, and raised high their ale mugs to toast the transformation of sleepy side street to veritable terror suspended.
By the bewitching hour, the streets of the Fan will teem with little ghosts and goblins from all corners of our fair city, their zeal for treats barely eclipsing their rising fright. And if the Hanover Avenue Gang can add just a few more rungs to their scaffolding, it remains possible that even Old Man Moon will be dressed up for the occasion.
For my part, I'll be marching through the crowds with a wee princess and sweet-smelling skunk, storming doors hand-in-hand as we beg for treats. Join me and you may get a whiff of Mardi Gras, and your nose will not be far from the mark. After all, when else do we give ourselves over so merrily to childish abandon? For all the days that we tread lightly around the leaf pile, when else do we dive in with wet sucker in hand? And when else does Elvis roam freely through the streets of Richmond?
I dare not stop with the Fan, for surely Halloween haunts every neighborhood in our little metropolis. From the ghouls of Ginter Park to the mean old witches of the West End, from South Side spine-tinglers to Shockoe Bottom snake-charmers, Wednesday night will be a hoedown worthy of our pagan forebears. And Thursday morning will be the dawn of repent, of chocolate smudges on the furniture and more than a few sweet-induced headaches.
But don't stop now. The ghosts of the past have always fallen heavily onto our doorsteps. Some are painful to name, distant yet still present in the cobbles and crumbling mortar of old Richmond. At least for the day, we can haunt them back.
Charles Schulz gave us Snoopy, the dog who dreamed of patrolling the skies in a Sopwith Camel; Charlie Brown, the boy who had a little trouble with his scissors and got nothing but rocks in return; and Linus, the last and perhaps only true believer in the Great Pumpkin. Ever faithful, Linus would defend his pumpkin patch against every hypocrisy. Ever frustrated, he would miss out on both treats and parties to keep vigil for his denominationally confused deity.
Let us do justice to these immortal characters, so much a part of our collective soul.
It is difficult to explain our indecorous Halloween traditions. It is even harder to protect them from the onslaught of commercialism, from spray-on cobwebs and ghost sheets with pre-cut holes. Surely there is even someone out there scheming to sell Halloween in a pill, all the tastes and thrills of the night reduced to one easy-to-swallow pink tablet.
But in Richmond, Halloween still rings true. "Look around you. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see!"
Brooks Smith is a partner at Hunton&Williams and a WCVE commentator currently presenting a series "Rediscovering Richmond."