written by Brian M. Osbourn
Halloween was always a big event for me. Growing up in a small town, you could be sure there were the telltale 70’s and 80’s decorations, the grade school Halloween parties and then the junior high dances at school, and the costumes that ranged from 80s’ plastic to custom made creations. Of course, we lived about a mile outside of town so on Halloween night, trick or treating included the requisite visits to the country neighbors and the local senior citizens who usually gave out good candy but came with the price tag of having to come in their houses so they could get a good look at your costumes. Looking back, I don’t recall with any specificity a single costume I or my brother wore, nor do I remember any the treats we snagged. I do, however, remember the tricks.
One of my earliest recollections was my dad and grandpa rigging ghosts out of sheets on a sophisticated pulley system so that the spook, whose head was a basketball, would drop down out of a tree to scare trick or treaters as they would approach my grandparents’ house. This was in the mid-80’s and I recall kids screaming as they ran terrorized down the street. Elm street, by the way.
Pulling tricks was not an isolated event for us. I recall one Halloween night my mom, brother and I stopped to show our costumes to a neighbor lady who lived out in the country and was home alone. This is Kansas in the mid-90’s. It’s dead quiet most of the time. The sun has set and there’s a chill in the crisp fall air as the neighbor comes out to our car to chat and see our costumes. My mom, who in the light of day would be remiss to keep a straight face while telling a lie, convincingly and in an almost terrorized voice pointed out a man lurking behind old sheds at the neighbor’s farm. The neighbor, who at first was likely not convinced mom saw what she said she saw, confirmed there was indeed someone in the shadows, lit only by a distant yard light, but most certainly looking over at us. The neighbor became hysterical, pushing us into the backseat and then getting into the front seat of our car, as well. Of course, we all played along and watched as the figure moved from the sheds to a nearby tree and eventually over to the car itself. Frightened out of her wits, eventually she saw that the man in the shadows was our dad who we’d told her had had to work late, but had gotten out of the car before we even pulled up.
Sometimes, the tricks weren’t tricks at all. I recall one Halloween, we’d done the usual trick or treating, stopped at my grandparents for a bit, then come home. Mom or dad turned on the TV (remember, we only got two over the air stations back then—satellite hadn’t come to the rural areas yet). There was a modern TV movie remake of The War of the World’s on CBS. Like the original radio play, it was portrayed from the perspective of a newscast. The phone rang. It was grandma, a chill in her voice as she asked, “are you guys watching this?” Now, it didn’t take mom and dad a second to know that it was just a movie, but I swear grandma and grandpa thought what they were seeing was an actual newscast of an alien invasion! Halloween connoisseurs know that during the first radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, listeners also believed it was a real broadcast and hysteria spread across the nation. That was October 30, 1938. Fifty-some years later, a small part of that happened at my house, too.
Another recollection is one of our family Halloween parties, which we always had because mom’s birthday was close to Halloween. This particular party was at my grandparents’ house, which was about half a block away from a bunch of storage units. The house was dark, aside from the glow of spooky lights, candles and blow molds popular in the latter decades of the 20th century. Well, as my mom and aunt watched out the front door, they noticed a car back up to storage units, lights off. In the shadows, they were certain they watched as a man carried dead bodies out of the trunk of the car and into the storage unit before racing off. After suggesting that my brother or I go over to see if we could see anything (hell, no), they opted to forget what they saw. No, this wasn’t a trick on them. They eventually found out that the bodies were indeed bodies—of Halloween dummies being used at a local dance a few days later.
And now we’ve arrived at the gist of our article—the origin of Charlie. Truthfully, I don’t know where the original Charlie came from. I’m sure my mom and dad or grandparents built the dummy, or perhaps each built their own version clad with the iconic mask that, to us, is the same as Michael Myers’ mask is to the masses. The mask itself was an early 1980's Ben Cooper production, but without the fancy box or fanfare that you see with a lot of the licensed Ben Cooper creations. The dummy, clad with a gold shirt, farmer’s cap and sometimes a wood cigarette had a head made of an old plastic flowerpot, yellow and red gloves, dirty jeans and was stuffed with old clothes and rags. He was perched on a red metal lawn chair and was a staple of the Halloween decor at my grandparents’ house and eventually at our house, too. In fact, there were multiple versions of Charlie after the original fell to pieces.
Sometimes he had straw insides, and the mask eventually became a similar, but less iconic clear version of the same hobo-style, old man that we would now call vintage. But it was that original Charlie that started the Halloween hijinks. He would sit in that lawn chair, part of the decor of the spooky season of the mid-1980’s. However, on Halloween night, the dummy Charlie was removed and grandpa, dressed like Charlie, took his place. So, as trick or treaters came up to the door seeing what they assumed was the dummy were scared shitless when grandpa would lunge up out of the chair at them.
Fast forward a few years. We had Charlie on our porch as a decoration. Again, it was Halloween and we lived out in the country. It was the night of our Halloween party slash mom’s birthday party. I should have known something was amiss when mom insisted, we keep the lights off. It was getting late and neither my grandparents or aunt and uncle had arrived.
Now, suspecting something was about to happen, my brother and I peered through the curtains looking for the headlights of cars as they approached our driveway. Nothing. And then it happened. There was a noise on our front porch. Mom went to look out and turned the porch light on and said “Oh, my god, it’s Charlie!” Forcing me and my brother to go look we could see indeed Charlie was no longer sitting in his chair on the porch, but right there trying to get in our front door! And then, all hell broke loose. There was a hammering at our back door. Someone was at the back door—and they got in. Keep in mind, this is not a huge house, but you can’t see the back door from the front door. As we stared in absolute terror, in walked a SECOND CHARLIE! One was pawing at the front door and now a second, identical Charlie had just walked into our kitchen from the back. Screaming, we were ready to get the hell out of there via the side door—only to be greeted by a THIRD Charlie! At this point, I recall falling to the floor in fright while my brother was in a tantamount episode that would result in an underwear change. Around us, however, my parents and grandma and aunt were laughing hysterically. The Charlie’s were actually my grandpa and cousin—both of which had a similar build and could pull it off. The third Charlie was really the first, just quickly moving from one place to the other giving the illusion of there being three. And we later found out they’d snuck up on us by shutting their car lights off a half-mile down the road and driving in the dark so that we wouldn’t be alerted to their arrival. They’d crept up to our house and hid the actual dummy Charlie. Yes, they got us. They got us good.
And now, readers of Osbourn Draw Comics or viewers of Slasher Design artwork know where some of that creativity comes from. My brother tracked down a replica of that hobo-ish old man mask that was the hallmark of the original Charlie. That Halloween fixture that most certainly scared his fair share of trick or treaters in a small, Midwest Kansas town is long gone. But the idea remains—both as memory of my Halloween past, but also as the inspiration of a serial killer character in multiple comic stories—including this year’s GIANT-SIZE CEREAL CREATURES HALLOWEEN SPECIAL.
You don’t see many Halloween dummies or homemade decorations these days. But, on Halloween night—no matter where you are or how old you are—take one extra second to check your surroundings. Because in a dimly lit corner, just beyond the warm glow of a jack o’ lantern, your very own Charlie may still be lurking in the shadows.
Comics featuring "Charlie" can be found on odcomics.com. All photos and artwork in this article are the property of Brian M. Osbourn.