For years, John Downs was known for building elaborate Halloween displays on his front lawn, roadside attractions with animatronic creatures that could conjure screams from the most avid thrill-seekers.
After the 2017 spooky season, he went on hiatus. But this year, with COVID-19 threatening to all but shut down his favorite holiday, the Winchester resident felt pulled back to his roots — this time, with a twist.
Inspired by videos he had seen online, Downs, 26, spent eight days building a fully automatic candy distribution machine dubbed the “Candy Cannon,” a socially distant invention that at the push of a button sends mini chocolates down a long tube and into the hands of trick-or-treaters eagerly waiting on the sidewalk.
“It’s kind of reaching out to the community," Downs said of the electric and pneumatic machine, which whirs, lights up, and sends fog into the air. "And giving them a little bit of hope that Halloween is, in fact, still a thing, and the spirit is alive.”
During the pandemic, all manner of activities have been canceled, making it hard to know what to look forward to. But people across the country are coming up with creative solutions to salvage Halloween, making sure that kids won’t miss the thrill of filling buckets and pillowcases with candy.
While some communities have prohibited trick-or-treating altogether as a safety precaution, others are urging residents to adhere to the recommendations of health experts.
The state Department of Public Health has offered guidance on how to celebrate Halloween while limiting the risk of exposure to COVID-19, tips the agency said are consistent with those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Leaving out communal bowls of candy and having direct contact with trick-or-treaters are not advised.
The restrictions have forced many people to think outside the box. But like Downs — who will have a supply of hand sanitizer by his machine — they’ve risen to the challenge and set to work on their creations, keeping health guidelines in mind.
For Winthrop resident Robert Holzbach, “saving Halloween” meant a trip to the hardware store, where he bought a long PVC pipe typically used for plumbing and transformed it into a decorated “candy chute” that will send candy flying from his porch on Saturday.
“What kid doesn’t like something coming through to them on a slide?” said Holzbach, a father of four whose community chose not to cancel trick-or-treating. “A pipe might be the last thing that will make people feel a little better about [trick-or-treating], and bring seasonal joy back into kids' lives.”
In Watertown, residents created a “COVID-Conscious Halloween" website with advice on how to make trick-or-treating safer. It suggests putting individually bagged treats on a table outside, attaching them to trees or clotheslines, or making chutes and slides.
It also features an interactive map where people giving out treats contact-free can add their homes, so those venturing out know where to find them.
Emily Woodward, a mother of two boys, included her house on the map after her husband, Nat, purchased two 10-foot-long PVC pipes to run from their front porch to the street to dispense candy.
Due to the incline, candy gets pretty good momentum sliding down the chute, so come Halloween, trick-or-treaters standing on the “X” taped to the sidewalk will need to be ready.
“It sort of hits them right in the gut,” Woodward said, laughing.
Meanwhile, residents of a small neighborhood in Arlington have been trading ideas about how to keep the Halloween spirit and safely transport candy.
Courtney Zwirn, whose front door is a considerable distance from the sidewalk below, took a page from some creative solutions she had read about on Facebook.
Using some rope, two pulleys, and an aluminum bucket that reads “Boo!,” she fastened a mechanism that allows her to slowly lower a supply of treats to kids as she sits on her front steps. She will sanitize the bucket after each trip.
“It’s safe for us, and it’s safe for the people who are coming by,” Zwirn said. “People are going to have to be patient, but hopefully the novelty of having to take it out of the bucket will be entertainment enough."
A few of her neighbors are following suit with their own contraptions, she said.
Alex, a father who lives nearby but didn’t want to give his last name, said he built a candy chute from his front steps to the sidewalk using PVC pipe, duct tape, and a big cardboard tube he found in the basement. He also added wooden poles for support.
Last week, he did a dry run with his mailman, and the slide worked like a charm. He’s ready for Halloween. Treats are on standby.
Like others, Alex said he sees these innovative methods of candy distribution as a way to keep the holiday alive, while adding an element that could make it memorable for years to come.
“It’s really important to us to show our kids that we aren’t just struggling through this, but we are actually finding ways to make this special and fun — to shine on our way through this crisis,” he said. “When we get creative like this, that’s a way to do it.”