In the mid-90s, LaVerdiere’s Super Drug, then the largest chain in Maine, was sold to Rite Aid. The transition was a depressing one for Halloween obsessed Mainers. Sure, Rite Aid still boasted (and continues to boast) an aisle dedicated to candy, cobwebs and greasepaint, but was sanitized to fit within a corporate drugstore aesthetic. Its offering is comparatively anemic to what once was; it is Ernest Scared Stupid to LaVerdiere’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. No Halloween offering made by a corporate drugstore can possibly match the terrifying display constructed by our home-grown chain.
LaVerdiere’s was Maine’s answer to Walgreens, or to the chain that inevitably gobbled it up, and it felt straight out of the 70s and 80s. I remember the flickering of fluorescent lights and yellows and browns. You could buy comic books there, which I did, and in the back of the store was an arcade that, here in Cornish, was really just a room with Double Dragon and a pinball machine or two. I was only allowed to play on special occasions, my parents told me, because the games were very expensive. I always saw the same kids in there, and I figured they were rich.
Home state hero (and master of horror) Stephen King describes the store—and touches on its Halloween offering—in his story The Sun Dog:
The LaVerdiere’s Super Drug Store was really more of a jumped-up five-and-dime than anything else… [It] carried everything the old Ben Franklin had carried, but the goods were bathed in the pitiless light of Maxi-Glo fluorescent bars which gave every bit of stock its own hectic, feverish shimmer. There was an aisle of notions, two aisles of first-aid supplies, and nostrums, an aisle of video and audio tapes (both blank and pre-recorded). There was a long rack of magazines giving way to paperback books, a display of lighters under one digital cash-register and a display of watches under another (a third register was hidden in the dark corner where the pharmacist lurked in his lonely shadows). Halloween candy had taken over most of the toy aisle (the toys would not only come back after Halloween but eventually take over two whole aisles as the days slid remorselessly down toward Christmas).
The Halloween aisle, illuminated by those Maxi-Glo fluorescent bars of King’s description, was stuffed with overpriced, Hollywood caliber movie makeup and gory prostheses. You could buy fake blood, entrails, and the full face rubber, foam, and latex masks that were only available there and—in that pre-Internet age—the back of Fangoria magazine. According to my friend Jeremy Smith, with whom I share nostalgia for the long-dead Halloween spectacle:
The aisle was massive, endless even. And scary. The rubber masks were top shelf, the full head covering kind. They were very detailed. This is before the whole ‘kid’s masks should be breathable and they should have some sort of vision’ age. Eff that. They had tiny eyes, and you would pass out from lack of oxygen but that’s okay because they looked incredible.
All of this was huge to those of us who grew up spending a great deal of time in video stores which, in rural Maine, were just variety stores that happened to have massive collections of VHS cassettes for rent. As the genre did most of its business in the home rental market, horror often accounted for upwards of a third of the video inventory. Because of this, even those uninterested in blood or guts eventually ran out of options and were faced with either again watching Crocodile Dundee or finally giving the Puppet Master series a chance.
For many of us young horror fans, the true stars weren’t the villains, the final girls, or the scantily dressed (if dressed at all) femme fatales, it was the teams that created the horror itself. Special effects giants like Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Ray Harryhausen, Tom Savini specialized in practical and makeup effects and we bought books and magazines that shined light on their various approaches. With skills developed in a pre-digital era, they built their monsters and gore using metal, latex and corn syrup. Sometimes the results were impressive and sometimes they were terrifically cheesy, but they always felt tangible. Upon seeing them, you could nearly feel the stickiness or smell the conveyed purification. It was at LaVerdiere’s in October that you could find many of the supplies and tools supposedly employed by the masters and experiment with their techniques.
As a younger kid, there was something particularly menacing about the aisle when teenagers were in the store. Smith mentioned this to me as well, and blogger Anthony Crabtree makes not of thesame phenomenon here. The costumes and masks were so real that merely seeing teenagers trying them on meant watching horrible and absolutely convincing monsters come to life. Mixed with the existing anxiety and sense of inferiority I already had being around older kids, this was enough to give me nightmares, which it did on many occasions. Through our young eyes, the aisle was convincing and almost supernatural. Even seeing those masks and various related props sitting inanimate was enough to terrify, which in retrospect feels a little irresponsible in this era of hyper-coddled children. This makes me enjoy my memories of it all the more.
That is what I miss about the aisle, I suppose, and about LaVerdiere’s itself, the horror section in variety stores, and video stores in general. That unguarded, sort of unsafe, dingy, irregular, terrifying element has almost been entirely erased. In retrospect, this is what gave the places we spent most of our time character. It made nearly every consumer experience distinctive and exciting. When was the last time you got excited in a Walgreens or a Rite Aid, or selecting a movie to watch at a Red Box? The precursors to today’s safer, more convenient options each felt different and only sort of planned, and they each felt like they had personality. I realize that I am remembering this all through the rosy lens of nostalgia—I imagine that some good has to have come from that standardization—and it still exists in the remaining oddball shops throughout the state, but it has been forever since it was the norm (even here in our very slow to catch up state). Halloween at LaVerdieres’s was when the freak flag itself let its freak flag fly, and—as blurred by nostaliga as my retrospect may be—I certainly miss it and everything we have lost in the name of progress, streamlining and sanitation, since.