I was never a pillowcase kid. Fill the sheets that I put my head on with the goods, risking an errant Mr. Goodbar besmirching my sleeping quarters? No thanks. Besides, a pillowcase would need to go in the wash eventually. My plastic pumpkin was a dedicated trick-or-treating device. And somehow, it managed to stay candy scented year-round.
More than 20 years after my last trip around the neighborhood, it is still the smell of Halloween.
There are very few times in life that candy bars are allowed to freely co-mingle with fruity treats. Halloween is one of those times. The smell of trick-or-treating aftermath is a delicate blend of chocolate confections and novelty sweets, wax-coated paper and cellophane tubes. It’s the sweaty nut oils of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, tempered with pastel Smarties dust. It’s an Almond Joy bouquet with notes of cherry Starburst. And the molded plastic of the pumpkin allowed this specially blended fragrance to linger, absorbing the distinctive aromas as time went on. Just sitting here at my desk, I can conjure up the scent.
Even as my candy levels dwindled—slowly, mind you, due to my strict self-rationing of one Fun-Size Snickers per day—I could still get high off my pumpkin anytime I wanted. In fact, the scent in my plastic pumpkin lasted long after the candy was gone. Did the soft plastic already smell like candy? Did the candy start to taste like plastic? I never knew for sure.
Besides its proficiency in scent-preservation, the plastic pumpkin is an object of pure Halloween perfection. This is a tool designed explicitly for sugar protection and storage. Sure, it was festive and convenient and cute in photos. But it was also ideal for a evening of candy procurement. Toss in a glow stick or a flashlight and it became a distinctive beacon to spot fellow Twix scavengers on the landscape. And on the off-chance you might trip on the hem of your hand-me-down Princess Leia gown, the curved walls helped keep your Skittles from sloshing out the sides.
Virtually every child in America will own a plastic pumpkin pail at some point in their lives. Up until recently, the pail remained a truly generic, universal object, which was a beautiful thing. I remember seeing dozens of plastic pumpkins on the shelves over the years, each with their own goofy, carved-squash expressions. The inventor, who surely was a genius, remained anonymous. But his contribution has been clearly felt. This was an object that had not changed, for the most part, for many decades.
Today, however, there are those who try to innovate. There are branded pails. There are hot pink pails. But most disturbingly, in the last few years, the pail has morphed from a biologically accurate Cucurbita pepo-inspired orb into what are basically just orange buckets with spray-painted faces.
These new-fangled pails also have a crucial design flaw: The steep, thin plastic sides are more sandbox tool than simulated pumpkin flesh. They don’t create the same womb of sugar.
As I got older, and my costumes became more sophisticated, the candy itself became less of a draw. I’d design thematic bags that went along with my character instead of accessorizing with a drugstore pumpkin. The plastic gourd moved from the back of my closet to a dusty shelf in the basement to a Goodwill in suburban St. Louis. I haven’t seen or touched one since.
If it has been awhile since your last whiff inside a candy-coated plastic pumpkin, and you find yourself on the other side of the door these days, might I suggest a way to bring all those memories back. Gather your goods for trick-or-treaters carefully—remember: Butterfingers to balance the Twizzlers—and stuff it all in a molded plastic pumpkin, the cheaper the better. Between knocks, inhale deeply to experience the true meaning of Halloween, which, if you’re lucky, will last all the way through Christmas.
Illustration by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock
Follow the author at @awalkerinLA