By: Alyson Small
Sounds and other sensory experiences are key in our perception and memory of a place. Sound has a way of transporting us – it’s like a time machine – and one of those quintessential sensory experiences in Georgestown, and on Maxse Street in particular, was always the sound of children, whose playful laughter and pitter-pattering feet echoed down the block. Nowadays, however, childhood looks a great deal different from how it once did, say forty years ago. Georgestown’s new generation of children, like most others across the country, are kept busier with extracurricular activities than ever before, leaving increasingly less time to play in the streets like their parents did when they were kids themselves. While that is the case 364 days of the year, there is an annual exception that is rapidly approaching, when Maxse Street will be filled with the familiar sound of children gathered in the streets once again, and that occasion is Halloween night.
During my time conducting fieldwork in Georgestown, I interviewed Brenda Halley– the youngest member of the Halley family – who grew up in the beautiful Georgian-style three-storey home at 13 Maxse Street (now belonging to Elizabeth-Anne Malischewski and Robert Sweeney). I interviewed Brenda with the intention of gaining an idea of what it was like to grow up here in Georgestown in the 1970s, and she enthusiastically shared some of her fondest memories from her childhood – most of which revolved around Halloween night – with me. According to Brenda, there is nowhere else you’d dare go on Halloween – Maxse Street is the place to be, and that has always been the case, but for differing reasons.
Brenda came from a large Irish Roman Catholic family that absolutely loved Halloween – her mother being the biggest fan of all. Naturally, when Brenda was a child, she and her siblings hosted notorious Halloween parties in the basement of their house on Maxse Street, and all the kids from that street joined in on the fun, without fail. But first, before the party, the children would grab their empty pillowcases and head down Maxse Street and “all the streets parallel, right over as far as Catherine, and you’d do Fleming, you’d do Hayward, and you’d do Monkstown Road.” Brenda’s father, who she warmly referred to as a jokester who liked to scare people, would always set up a spooky scarecrow in a rocking chair on the lawn, while her mother made sure to have a barrel for the party-goers to bob for apples in. After each child at the party had successfully bobbed for an apple, which was “before all the cross-contamination and germ stuff” (not to mention completely ruining their Halloween makeup in the process), they would count out their candies, have cake, punch (or Purity Syrup if they were lucky), and listen to creepy music in the Halley’s basement, which aptly had a black painted ceiling and orange piping.
Despite these annual parties having come to an end when the Halley family sold their home in the early 1980s, Maxse Street remains THE place to be on Halloween night, thanks to a recent tradition. For the last few years, the Neighbourhood Dance Works company has been delighting both trick-or-treaters and adults alike with a flash performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” right at the intersection on Maxse Street and Hayward Avenue. Brenda told me that every year since this tradition began, she receives text messages from all kinds of people wanting to know exactly what time the show will be put on – it’s that popular. Now as far as I know, the first year that the local dance company performed “Thriller,” no one had a clue what was about to happen. As Brenda recalls, all the parents were out with their kids trick-or-treating as per usual, “when this black, long – like a limousine – comes down Maxse Street and stops in the middle of Maxse Street and I thought that’s really sort of spooky, but oh no, it’s Halloween you know and it’s just started to get dusky, and these people come out of the car, and one has a ghettoblaster – I hadn’t seen a ghettoblaster in like 25 years – and puts it on the roof of the car – really cool – everything was black, and they were dressed as zombies and they do the Thriller.” It was a total hit (despite giving many startled kids quite a fright), and has become an annual event, drawing people from all sorts of neighbourhoods around St. John’s to Maxse Street specifically to watch this dance company perform “Thriller”. In fact, it has become so popular that there are talks of relocating the event to Century Park in order to accommodate the large crowds.
It’s traditions like these – both old and new – that have a way of bringing the community, or rather, communities, together. Though the way of life is no longer the same in Georgestown as it was forty years ago, flourishing traditions such as the zombie “Thriller” performance revitalize and reinforce that sense of community in an inclusive and creative new way. As I mentioned earlier, neighbourhood activities like these transport you to another time through your senses – a time when people are mentally present, mingling with their neighbours, and eagerly welcoming curious newcomers. If Georgestown had a soundtrack, it would be the smile-inducing sound of children playing and laughing in the streets, and on every Halloween night, that sound is brought back to life – perhaps like a zombie dancing to “Thriller.”