SWAMPSCOTT — On Halloween night, Bob and Edye Baker’s front stoop will be jammed with people waiting to get inside. Young and old, costumed or in street clothes, they won’t be there for the candy — the Bakers don’t hand out any — or for haunted-house terrors.
Instead, they will be there for the memories. But first they must document the present. So they will stop and pose for a photo and sign the logbook. Then they’ll grab cider and a doughnut and head for the main attraction: a floor-to-ceiling Halloween photo gallery documenting 40 years of Halloween visitors.
The improbable neighborhood time capsule captures two generations of trick-or-treating visitors: winsome witches and mighty little superheroes, vampires, and princesses, some now grown with their own children — with all the photos labeled by name and year.
“The point is to really see the progression as people get older,” says Edye Baker, 69, who began the tradition when her two children were young and who now has a 13-year-old granddaughter helping her keep it alive. “It’s always just seemed like a nice way to create memories.”
Her intent, she says, is for everyone she knows to approach Halloween saying, “Let’s go to the Bakers and get on the wall!” And go they do, posing in pairs, in trios, or in larger configurations, sometimes with their parents or grandparents, sometimes with school friends. Yet always in the spirit of creating something they’ll delight in revisiting years later. Three hundred or more visitors turn up each year.
Even young adults who have left home for college will e-mail Baker photos of themselves in costume to include in her Halloween Hall of Fame. Otherwise, they tell her, Oct. 31 simply wouldn’t feel like Halloween.
“That’s part of the progression,” says Baker, strolling down her corridor of memories and pointing out which young person pictured in the 1970s, ’80s, or ’90s is now a doctor, an actress, a detective, a priest. “You see the little kids [grow up] through junior high, then disappear for a while. All of a sudden, they show up again as adults, with their own kids.
“Part of the fun is finding themselves and saying, ‘I can’t believe I wore that costume!’ Or, ‘I can’t believe I was friends with them!’ ”
It is a tradition that harkens back to a more trusting time, when people seemed to know their neighbors a bit better, when a parent’s primary concern on Halloween was getting the kids to wear a sweater.
Andrea Miller of Marblehead, who grew up near the Bakers, brings her son, Jake, now 12, every year, no matter what else is happening on Halloween night. The oldest photo of Miller herself, standing next to her two younger siblings, is dated 1973. “It’s a wonderful experience, to think back on your life and how it’s changed, both for yourself and your kids,” says Miller. “I see something new every year.”
Ina-Lee Block, a neighbor of the Bakers since 1987, wouldn’t miss a Halloween visit, either. Even when her kids got too old to go out candy-hunting, they made a point of dropping by Edye and Bob’s house for a doughnut and a snapshot.
“It’s part of the neighborhood tradition,” Block says, “the Bakers taking the best of the holiday, not the worst, and celebrating it.”
The picture-taking began in the late 1960s, before the Bakers moved into the 1950s Swampscott ranch house they’ve owned since 1972. Wielding a Brownie camera, Edye began shooting a few of the neighborhood kids on Halloween, just for fun. Even more fun, she quickly discovered, was displaying the pictures the next year and having them oooh’ed at all over again.
Decades later, her front hallway gets so packed with visitors on Halloween night it can be overwhelming. Still, she insists upon all guests sticking around until their picture gets snapped.
Long before social media came along, word spread amongst the Bakers’ neighbors that their house was a destination stop on Halloween. Treats you could get anywhere. At Bob and Edye’s, you could get a small piece of immortality. Priceless.
As times changed — technologies, too — the Bakers got more organized, not less, about preserving these precious Halloween moments. In the mid-’80s, they remounted and relabeled all the posterboards. For a four-year period, they switched to a Polaroid instant camera, a move they now regret. (“The pictures aren’t as crisp,” says Edye ruefully.) Eight years ago, they entered the digital camera age; more recently, they’ve started entering the names and years attached to all their photos in a computer database, so people can look themselves up more easily. Edye is now up to 1983.
It helps, her husband says, that Edye has made anyone wearing a mask remove it while being photographed, so his or her face is more recognizable.
Halloween is “fuzzy kittens and cute little ghosts,” Edye says. “I’m not into scary. I’m not into spooky, or any of that undead stuff. My vision of Halloween is much more fun and frivolous.”
According to Bob Baker, 70, who owns a Lawrence-based manufacturing company, no matter how big the Halloween crowd gets, the holiday never feels like work.
“We didn’t start out with any grand plans,” he says. “When the kids in the pictures started bringing their own kids, that’s when we realized how important this was to our guests.”
Once Halloween is over, the posterboards go back into plastic envelopes and into a closet until the next year. On rare occasion, the Bakers will hear from a former neighbor who has returned to the area. Could he or she see the photos again? Edye does her best to oblige.
One returnee, Peter Vasiliou, plans to bring his baby daughter, Alexandra, along this year for what will be her first Halloween at the Bakers’. Vasiliou, who lives in Marblehead, grew up near the couple, his own first Halloween photo having been snapped in the late ’70s.
Nowadays, he says, “With Facebook, people take pictures left and right. But my parents don’t have many pictures of me in costume” from his childhood days. “The fact that this is still going is pretty incredible.”Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.