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What's Meant in the Ozarks by "Trick or Treat"

In this month’s installment of These Ozarks Hills, Marideth Sisco reflects on what exactly is meant by “trick or treat” and the kinds of “tricks” you might see here in the Ozarks.

Sisco: This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. Halloween is upon us again…that special night when children of many ages dress in mad outfits and fall upon their neighbors demanding candy. They all know the phrase “trick or treat” but most of the kids don’t know what that means anymore. They say “trick or treat” when they really just mean “give me a treat.” It’s a phrase to make polite the demand for candy. It’s code, for all they know. In the Ozarks, though, where memory runs deep along with some arcane traditions surrounding Halloween, the message remains clear: It’s “give me a treat or else.” Those who smirk and say, “Or else what?” have lived in town too long or they’re not from here. They’ve not awakened on November first to find their windows covered in scrawls of soap or paraffin or their mailbox upside down or a wagon on the roof of the barn…or a car…or a tractor. In the Ozarks, just about everyone knows the phrase should really go “treat or else trickery.” On Halloween, nothing is safe. Nothing is sacred. One old man in my hometown got so weary of having his outhouse turned over every Halloween that he vowed to shoot the next person who tried it. And on that fateful evening, he settled down to wait in ambush inside the outhouse, shotgun in hand. But the tricksters got wind of his plot and simply waited until they could hear him start to snore. They sneaked up behind the outhouse and turned it over on its door. The man, besides nearly being shaken to bits in the crash, ended up having to shoot his way. That story still remains in the fabric of my town’s humor after many a year. In West Plains, where I live now, people still talk about the night an unnamed collection of boys disassembled a Ford Model T and reassembled it on the roof of the opera house. So it goes. The tradition of trickery remains alive all across these Ozarks hills. So on this occasion, I thought it might be fun to share a bit of old fashioned trickery, one that’s not been heard of much outside folklore circles for a very long time. I was reminded of it in fact, when the basic technique, without trickery, was demonstrated at the recent annual Ozarks Symposium at Missouri State West Plains. The idea is to take a piece of stout cotton twine, tie a knot in one end, and thread the other end through a hole in the bottom of a tin can. Have a friend hold the other end of the string while you hold the tin can and stretch the string tight. Then rub a cube of violin rosin up and down the string. The string becomes just like any other instrument string while the tin can acts as the amplifier or sound box. If done right, the can emits a piteous, non-musical howl that’s truly blood curdling. It’s called tick-tacking. It’s quite loud and if it’s coming from behind a tree on a dark, Halloween night, it can truly scare the bejesus out of a person. But that’s not the trick. Here’s the trick. In daylight, go to the house of an unsuspecting neighbor or family member, being sure you haven’t picked one that has a weak heart or otherwise delicate constitution. On the outside walls of the house, search until you find a nail that has worked its way loose enough that the nail head sticks out about an eighth of an inch or more but is still firmly attached. Tie tightly to the nail the end of a long piece of string, long enough that the person holding the other end of string can remain out of sight. It’s best not to be seen doing this. Go on about your business until nightfall and then return to the house, violin rosin in hand. Locate the other end of the string, stretch it tightly, and begin to rub the rosin up and down the string. If done correctly, the entire house becomes the sound box and those hearing it may think the house is coming apart or at the very least, that they’ve acquired a new ghost. At this point, the perpetrator will face an ethical dilemma: Do you tell the people in the house about the trick and trust that everyone will have a good laugh over it? Or do you keep still and hope they never catch on to the trick…or the trickster? One thing’s for sure. If you like these folks, you might want to confess before the “for sale” sign goes up in their yard. Good neighbors are important in the Ozarks and no matter how good the joke, they’ll need to know when it’s over. This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills, planning to be away from home tomorrow night now that I’ve told you about tick-tacking. Thanks for listening.