The Doc Project·First Person

How my high school Halloween party became the stuff of nightmares

When a teenaged Richard Kelly Kemick hosted a Halloween bash in his parents’ basement, more was revealed than the costumes could conceal.

In a bid for popularity, Richard Kelly Kemick threw a Halloween rager. What could go wrong?

A 15-year-old Richard Kelly Kemick and his jalapeño poppers are quickly overwhelmed by out-of-control guests. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

This First Person column is the experience of author Richard Kelly Kemick. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

Halloween is a night that glows with possibility. Much is made about the transformative opportunities of holidays such as New Year's or Valentine's Day, with their insipid resolutions and Hallmark promises. But none of them possess the singular opportunity that Halloween affords, where a metamorphosis is not only encouraged, but written into the rules. You can become the stuff of your dreams — or nightmares. 

For Grade 10, I had enrolled at Central Memorial, a fine arts high school 90 minutes beyond the borderlands of my suburban Calgary postal code. The anonymity of a fresh start is an occasion not to be squandered.

And so, when the leaves began to change, I asked my parents if I could host a Halloween party.

'Your mom and I might have a partay of our own,' my father said.

They agreed because I floated the idea in early September, and amidst the unfolding school year and the already-familiar voice of my brother's principal on the phone, Halloween must have seemed so distant into the future as to be on the other side of the apocalypse.

They had one condition, however: that I limit it to the basement.

"Your mom and I might have a partay of our own," my father said. But I shrugged him off, for I knew that "partay" actually meant "invite over Donna and Margaret to play cards in the living room and talk about the price of beef."

The Grade 10 glitterati

I wanted the party to be American in size, so I invited my 40-person acting class. At the top of the list was the social gentry: Caitlynne, who did voice overs for Japanese cartoons; Hunnah, whose name was spelt "Hannah" but insisted the pronunciation was different; and Tommy, who bought hair gel by the oil barrel. But above them all was Nick Wilson*. 

Nick Wilson was leading man material while also playing some sort of full-contact position on the football team. He quoted old-timey movies, could identify trucks, and sang Tom Petty covers on acoustic guitar, and he did it all while wearing T-shirts so tight you could see his soul. 

The Halloween party was to be my debutante ball. For at that time, nobody knew who I was — indeed, I myself did not know. Within the stack of invitations I held in my hands was also the opportunity to create a new version of myself, and to wear it with such conviction, such assuredness, that the façade would linger the whole year 'round.

And so I spent the month of October spending my dishwasher's paycheque. I frequented the aisles of Canadian Tire so ceaselessly that the cashiers began to refer to me as "The Boy," as in, "The Boy is back and needs someone to help him carry the inflatable coffin" or, "The Boy wants another price match on polyester spiderwebbing."

Richard investigates the lowest prices on Halloween decor. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

This nickname, however, was a substantial upgrade from what I was called at my former school, which was "Rich the Bitch." Everything was already improving.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

I had grown so used to throwing parties no one attended that  I could have hardly anticipated the cavalcade of cars at the curb. In the basement, me and my hors d'oeuvres were quickly overwhelmed. The conveyor belt of guests continued to arrive, squeezing shoulder to shoulder, cowboy hat to top hat, sexy rabbit ear to sexy mouse ear. Even Olympus had descended: those young gods of Caitlynne, Tommy and Nick Wilson. 

But despite the crowd, nothing happened. "Jalapeño popper?" I kept offering the room. "Jalapeño popper?" During the lag between the songs of my creepy crawly soundtrack, we heard my parents in the living room above, laughing at a joke Donna or Margaret had told.

But then, from our basement crowd: the plastic crack of a bottle being opened. 

At any gathering of artist types, a single drop of liquor will turn them lunatic.

If I could impart to my teenage self a single piece of advice, it would be this: at any gathering of artist types, a single drop of liquor will turn them lunatic.

But I did not know this then, and I watched, sober and stricken, as Andrew H and Christopher (dressed as Beetlejuice and Buzz Lightyear) stuffed couch cushions beneath their shirts and sumo wrestled into the most erotic of submissions. Emma (dressed as a witch, which was no stretch, for she was a real-life Wiccan) launched her half-naked self off the desk and onto the crowd, only for the mob's bird-boned arms to be unable to hold her weight, as she slammed into the drywall. From the corner, someone shook cans of Dr Pepper and showered us with their sticky lust. 

The French connection

I tried to section off the room for charades, but doing so was like organizing a wildebeest migration. Instead, Alex (dressed as an escaped asylum patient) insisted those not dancing join him in a game of Spin the Bottle: French Kiss Level.

As the host, I had first spin, and I watched my father's empty home-brew bottle swivel on the carpet. 

The bottle came to rest, pointing at penguin Lindsay. I crawled to the centre of the circle to meet her.

But as I proceeded to the part of the kiss—how to say this?—that defined the kiss as French, Lindsay recoiled, revolted. 

How was I to know that there was a pace and progress to kissing, and I had leapfrogged to the end, the part that's reminiscent of how a chameleon catches its food? But I hadn't done so out of arrogance or fear or even juvenile libido, but rather to show the room that there was nothing of myself hidden, even the very hilt of my tongue.

"Your whole mouth ... ate my mouth," Lindsay would say later of the disastrous French kiss. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Shunned from the circle, I retreated to the top of the basement stairs and surveyed the pandemonium below: the fiberoptic skull tossed like a beachball, a handful of scantily-clad rodents grinding to the "Monster Mash," while Tommy (sans costume) feigned oral sex with my ventriloquist dummy. But most importantly was what I did not see, or rather, who: Nick Wilson had left.

The basement did not have a bathroom, but if someone were to exit and turn tight against the wall, they could stay hidden from the sightline of the adults in the living room and scamper to the guest bathroom on the main floor.  

I had left the basement to search for Nick Wilson. I remember standing before the ajar bathroom door. I remember hearing my father, from the living room, saying, "Can you believe it? 4.99 a pound for sirloin!" I remember the light around the hinges and the shuffle of shadows.

Double, double toil and trouble

Unbeknownst to me, moments earlier, Hunnah felt the churn of contraband liqueur inside her, and a coterie of her friends had ferried her into the bathroom. She got to the toilet for the first heave but, thinking herself finished, closed the lid only to feel an additional wave surprise her. The result exploded off the lid and coated the walls like a microwave in which a Hot Pocket had burst.

As I studied the carnage, I was taken aback by my reflection on the other side of the sink. 

Did I tell you that I had dressed up as Nick Wilson? I'd wrapped my biceps with tensor bandages and squeezed into a child's T-shirt, and I had put my arm in a sling and face-painted on a black eye, alluding to some concussive tackle. And for a flicker, I thought the reflection was not mine, but Nick's, and so I had fulfilled my Halloween wish and became who I wanted to be. But when I noted the tremble of Nick's lower lip, the mirage dispersed, and only myself remained.

Why is it so hard to know yourself? The souls of others shine through their very T-shirts, while the space in your own chest remains dark and obscured.

Sixteen years after my Halloween party, I reached out to three people who were there to make the radio documentary you can listen to at the top of this page. It wasn't hard to contact them; in fact, I had them on speed dial. Because that night signalled the start of us becoming bonded in the way that only the dark arts can manage.

From left, four of the partygoers: Jocelyn, Lindsay, Richard and Alex at graduation, 2007. (Submitted by Richard Kelly Kemick)

It is, perhaps, the most eerie and exciting aspect of life: that at any moment, you could descend into a pitch-black basement and be surrounded by people who see through all the pageantry and costuming, into your very heart, into exactly who you are.

*Nick Wilson is not his real name. "Nick" now holds a job with the Calgary government, and did not want me to use his real name. 

Richard and his partner, Litia, at their first-ever date: another Halloween party. (Submitted by Richard Kelly Kemick)
About the producer

Richard Kelly Kemick is the author of I Am Herod, a backstage and undercover look at one of the world's largest religious events. He is the recipient of two National Magazine Awards, an Alberta Literary Award, and is a prodigy at pumpkin carving. He lives in Rossland, B.C. 

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