Besides attending school, my primary extracurricular activity as a child was begging my mom for WWF magazine within our local Walgreens and Osco. Does any institution represent small town americana more accurately than the “corner” drugstore? A near necessity located in Anytown, USA providing simple goods with a helpful smile in every aisle. Perhaps it’s been romanticized over the decades via Andy Griffith or Norman Rockwell. Regardless, the drug store of yesteryear may be gone, but that doesn’t mean the idea is. These stores were a convenient necessity to our daily routine and was often the first place I’d get a taste of my favorite holiday: Halloween.
Over the recent years, I’ve come to feel nostalgic for these “corner drug stores” of all things. It’s not surprising considering most of my childhood establishments have been reduced to empty lots and condominiums. This forces my mind to peel away the obvious nostalgic layers to unearth some truly pure unfiltered personal nostalgia long since buried. Memories that existed, yet laid to rest, but slowly creeping up and bursting out of my mind-soil. Once risen, I’m hit with a rich old-found Thriller-dance of nostalgic thoughts. The type of memories that breed silly pointless articles. No one can escape the evil of the Thriller after all!
So this season, I decided to return to some of the drug stores that, unknowingly, made my Halloween a bit more magical. To haunt that seasonal aisle once again and document their spooky offerings in 2022. The appeal of the American drugstore is convenience. So throw on your coziest hoodie and let’s conveniently crunch along the leaf-covered block to the corner drugstore. I’ll buy you a pop.
I visited two drug stores: the first being Jewel-Osco. A Chicagoland grocery store chain that has existed for as long as Halloween itself. I’ve spent countless hours of my childhood at “The Jewels”, much to my dismay, with the only other store competing being my local K-Mart. These days, I actually enjoy my Jewel trips as it evokes a sense of comforting nostalgia. Mainly because Jewel hasn’t changed. From the store layout to the logo, grocery bags, smells, and employee uniforms. Even the dated intercom voice announcing sales and grocery code garble. I truly believe Jewel peaked in 1981 and thought, as a collective company, “we’re good. Let’s stay here.”
Entering through Osco drug, the “seasonal” aisle glowing a familiar orange greeted me with open skeleton arms. One side full of spooky assorted party favors and decor while the other a towering wall of limitless fun-size candy. You know how it is. “It Must’ve Been Love” by Roxette echoed throughout the aisle, confirming that Jewel indeed hasn’t changed in decades. Yet…neither have I. And I don’t want either of us to.
As previously mentioned, the drugstore was often the first place I’d get a taste of Halloween. Grocery shopping with my mother come September, there was a certain expected brew bubbling inside me as our cart neared the seasonal aisle. Turning a corner and seeing bags of candy, rubber bats, and plastic jack o’lanterns was mere confirmation of what we all knew was coming…yet it was still exciting to see it was finally here.
Understand that the Halloween aisle offered here isn’t anything spectacular. It never was. Yet the same Halloween aisles of my childhood seemed more thorough. Could be a case of rose tinted glasses, but these offerings always served as a mere kickoff to the season. I always enjoyed the simplicity of it: The often present generic icons of Halloween such as the witch, ghost, black cat, or vampire. Not to mention the ever-present cutesy window decals and plastic bags of fake spiderwebs.
But nothing screams “Halloween” more than some cheap drugstore masks and makeup kits. The past 2 years these have been absent from the aisles entirely. I’m not surprised at this decision, but I’m still bummed to see this tradition dry up. Michael Myers always grabs his mask from a local drugstore after all! I guess he’ll have to settle for a paper bag this year.
I suppose Walgreens has become “America’s Drugstore” since Mom and Pop’s were effectively taken out back and put out of their misery decades ago. The Walgreens of my childhood was quite literally on the corner and although I’m not as fond of it today as The Jewels, I have positive memories nonetheless. Walgreens was a place where I obtained most of my then music library (including a couple spooky Halloween soundtracks) which was found on a spinning counter rack carrying cassette singles. I’ve also decided what to be for Halloween a few times during a trip to my local Walgreens as I recollect their decent amount of kids costumes and accessories back in the day. These days, the only time I find myself in a Walgreens drugstore is during the Halloween season.
But that’s not an insult, as the drugstore has some pretty cool stuff. It has a lot of classic standbys (like Ghostface masks, candy corn, and pumpkin carving kits) as well as a lot of licensed stuff from Disney and various horror films. They seemed like they weren’t fully stocked just yet, but there was enough to oogle and make some impulse buys. I especially loved the plush horror “waddlers” as they literally harass you while playing music at the touch of a button. Oddly enough, there was no Chucky…who seems to be perfect for this line.
Walgreens also had a great variety of Halloween novelty candy. I’m not talking about the 8 lbs sacks you buy for the trick or treaters, but the ones you grab for yourself as a sugary impulse. Little plastic monsters that “poop” candy pellets, Skeleton flashlight tubes holding sweets, gummy vampire fangs, and spooky pez dispensers just to name a few. Speaking of, I had to get a little something during my journey:
Remember Nestle Wonderball? It was a plastic “egg” holding a prize, covered in chocolate, and wrapped in foil. Well, these are called “YOWIE”s and they’re basically the same thing but cooler. They look like monsters from Sesame Street (I chose “Rumble” and “Crag”) and they hold little plastic figures of animals with cool “super powers”, along with a scroll explaining how freaky these guys are.
I was honestly expecting a figure of the monster I chose, but this turned out to be better in every way. I loved that it turned into a learning experience and focused on creepy critters. It took me back to the days of Zoobooks and Animal Planet (back when it was thoughtful and educational and not just shows about Bigfoot becoming a Lawyer or something) . These candies originate from Australia, as I assumed they were foreign because they were educational, and I’ll definitely be picking some of these up during those monotonous grocery trips.
These drug stores were mere pit stops along the way to something more interesting, yet I now look back at them with a collective fondness. The joy the Halloween season brought me became more apparent within these simple stores. As my mother picked up some quick essentials, I recall persuading her for a pair of plastic vampire fangs or a rubber glow-in-the-dark skeleton. Involuntarily taking in that rubbery smell when thumbing through a short rack of cheap plastic “smock” costumes. Wondering what I would go as during my school’s halloween party as I’d haunt the small collection of bargain masks and makeup kits. As the kids say, It was a vibe…little did I know at the time.
The Halloween season, in itself, celebrates monsters, mystery, and macabre. In our modern society, it’s become a tradition of gratuitous amounts of fun-size candy, overpriced superhero costumes, and obnoxiously long lines for haunted houses. And, like Abraham Lincoln lighting a deep fried bottle rocket, it’s undeniably American…for better or worse.
Tradition is inseparable from nostalgia. Take Dracula and his casket or Dr. Frankenstein and the monster, you can’t have one without the other. As each new Halloween season approaches, I harken back to those of yesteryear. There was never any extravagance among my favorite Halloween memories. It was something as simple as taking in neighborhood decorations with my mother, attending my school’s fall fest with some friends, or strolling the Halloween aisle of our local drugstore like we just did.
And I believe that’s a big reason why Halloween has always remained special to me: it’s what you make of it. And Halloween doesn’t have the overwhelming pressure of, say, a Birthday, Christmas, or Thanksgiving. It’s the only holiday where you can watch Ghoulies Go To College alone while downing an entire bag of fun-size snickers and it’s considered time well spent.
Writing this article dredged up another fond Halloween memory: I was about 15 years old. An age where you’re considered “too old” for the usual Halloween traditions…yet “too young” to partake in any new ones. It was a growing realization that Halloween was just becoming another day. That “childhood” aspect of it losing its spark. Sensing my depression, my mom and cousin went to the local drug store and purchased some cheap plastic halloween masks and we all went trick or treating that evening.
I remember walking down the block in my Spider-man costume and seeing a bunch of children with smiles and jack o’lanterns of candy in hand. My natural reaction was almost feeling embarrassed for myself. I’m too old. I look so stupid. I thought to myself. But I turned back and saw my mom and cousin dressed in their spooky slap-dashed costumes, newly acquired masks adorned, giddy and excited gripping old treat bags. It was somewhat of an epiphany.
There’s no age limit to Halloween. You can outgrow Halloween, but it doesn’t outgrow you.
So this season, make sure to celebrate with a childish mindset. Harken back to those magical Halloweens of yesteryear. And if you never had one, there’s no better time to make one. We’re not here for long after all. So take those you cherish to celebrate with the spooks before we all become some.
If interested in some other related spooky offerings, here’s an episode of my podcast where my best friend and I peruse Jewel for Halloween goodies!
And here’s an Ad Nauseam where I crack open a 90’s Fangoria Magazine littered with some great memories of Halloween past!