‘Corn-ing’ the Suburbs on Halloween, a Sonic Trick and Treat
It was a crisp Saturday night in late-October. I was probably seven or eight. My brother and I were sitting on the couch watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” for the zillionth time.
And then we heard it.
To our stunned ears, it seemed as though my parents’ bay window, situated directly behind us, had shattered to pieces. But, mysteriously, it was still there, in tact.
Our tiny nervous systems were not prepared for this sonic assault, especially because it didn’t make sense. We stared in disbelief at the window for a minute, waiting for it to spill its shards. When we got enough courage to get up and peer out the front door, we saw the lanky silhouettes of teenagers running away into the dark of the trees. Piles of dried out corn kernels were scattered all over the porch like empty shells. We had been corned.
“Corn-ing,” a longstanding Halloween tradition in the suburbs of western Pennsylvania, is a popular prank in which kids sneak up to houses after dark and throw pre-hardened corn kernels at their windows, producing a truly startling sound effect. Corn-ing’s treat lies in the sonic trick—corn is able to convincingly sound like something else entirely. Thinking back on my experiences as both a victim of and participant in corn-ing, it occurs to me that this prank is sonic through and through—from listening for farmers in the corn fields before snatching husks from their crops, to locating one’s corn-ing partners in pitch black environments by the sound of the kernels bouncing rhythmically in their backpacks.
When early October rolled around each year, it was like an alarm went off in the heads of the kids that lived in my neighborhood. October meant it was time to procure ears of corn from the farms located on the outskirts of our Wonder-Years-ish suburb. In the days before we had our drivers’ licenses, this was an arduous task. We’d have to ride our bikes on the hilly back roads in mid-day (night time was too scary after we’d seen Children of the Corn), ditch them in the woods near the fields, and listen carefully for any signs of life in the corn—farmers, animals, blood-thirsty fundamentalist Christian children named Malachi, etc.
We couldn’t rely on our sight in these instances because the corn was so tall. We had to stop filling our backpacks every so often and listen for sounds of danger—for the rustles and crunches of stalks.
After our backpacks were filled to the brim, the preparation process began. The corn would sit for weeks in our garage, getting harder and harder. Once it became pebble-like in consistency, we’d shuck it back into our backpacks, listening to the pinging sound as it accumulated. On Friday afternoons, anxiously waiting for the sun to go down, we’d talk strategy. We decided that corning old people was out of the question. Even in our pseudo-delinquent state, we realized that sound had consequences—that spooking someone could give them a heart attack. So we mostly stuck to mean neighbors like old man Haybee, who was notorious for the unsightly cursive green “H” that was bolted to his chimney like a garish fast food sign. He never gave out candy to trick or treaters, so he was basically asking for it. Once a plan of attack was developed, it was time to suit up in all-black clothing and put on our packs. As soon as the streetlights came on, we were off.
My memories of these adolescent adventures are predominately sonic—the crunch of the fallen leaves, pounding hearts and nervous breathing, barely muffled laughter, and of course the sound of corn making contact with glass. Indeed, the success of the prank was measured in sound. The louder the sound the corn produced, the louder the aftermath tended to be. It was a true victory if dogs barked, or if people came out of their houses to yell. “You damn kids better run!” they would scream, sometimes only half seriously. And we did. We ran for our lives, despite the oppressive weight of the corn on our backs.
Click for the sound of sorn-ing: corn-ing
I wanted to capture the sounds of a real corn-ing experience to include here, but I quickly realized what an incredibly stupid idea that would be (what you heard, by the way, was the sound of me and my neighbor corning our own apartment building). As an almost 30-year-old Pittsburgher living in a fairly rough neighborhood, sneaking up to people’s houses at night in order to produce startling noises would most likely result in an encounter with police or violence of some kind. In the suburban environment of my adolescence, the sound of corn-ing was associated with a silly prank. Neighbors came to expect (and even get a kick out of) this Halloween tradition. In an urban environment in which the corn-ers are no longer in their teens, however, the sound of corn-ing would most almost certainly be interpreted as an aggressive or threatening act.
This just goes to show that different configurations of sound, spaces, and bodies (particularly raced and classed bodies) can result in vastly different understandings about what it means to share sound in a community. In Pittsburgh, I find myself constantly bombarded with the sounds of emergency and panic—police and ambulance sirens, firetrucks, helicopters. In my community’s soundscape, loud, startling noises are definitely not associated with fun and folly. Rather, they are a constant reminder of the looming danger that apparently surrounds me, as well as the incessant surveillance and policing of the city. This does not leave much room for sonic play.
This is not to say that there was no danger in corn-ing the burbs. For instance, this recent tragedy, in which a corn-er accidentally was hit by a car, happened in a suburb not far from the one where I grew up. Back when I was pitching corn, my best friend Courtney was once tackled by a man who thought she was slashing the tires of his truck (she was really just hiding behind a tire with a fistful of corn). And my brother Matt and I often found ourselves taking cover in the neighbors’ shrubbery waiting for the town patrolman to finish his watch. But I’d imagine that these war stories would not even come close to the dangers of corn-ing in the city. It is clear that the effectiveness of corn-ing as a prank is contingent upon the specific time, season, location, and culture in which its sounds occur.
Perhaps the real trick of sound, then, is that the context of its sounding can completely transform its effects and affects. But if you can get the sounds in sync with the right context, well, then you’ve got yourself a real treat.
Steph Ceraso is a 4th year Ph.D. student in English (Cultural/ Critical Studies) at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in rhetoric and composition. Her primary research areas include sound and listening, digital media, and affect. Ceraso is currently writing a dissertation that attempts to revise and expand conventional notions of listening, which tend to emphasize the ears while ignoring the rest of the body. She is most interested in understanding how more fully embodied modes of listening might deepen our knowledge of multimodal engagement and production. Ceraso is also a 2011-12 HASTAC [Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory] Scholar and a DM@P [Digital Media at Pitt] Fellow. She regularly blogs for HASTAC.
16 responses to “‘Corn-ing’ the Suburbs on Halloween, a Sonic Trick and Treat”
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Thank you for writing this. Reading this article brought back so many good memories of my youth growing up in Western PA. Even now, in my mid 40’s, when it hits this time of year I still think about corning.
I didn’t know if kids today have ever heard of this. In my day, we called it “racking”. The really bad kids would “soap” car windows too. “Soaping”, we called it, but this was more like vandalism.
In Allentown PA, we called it tick-tacking. The older kids did it after trick-or-treating. Our parents approved it, and the neighbors expected it. It was a tradition. And the sound: so fun!
I was talking to my sister over thanksgiving about the fun we had corn-ing growing up in a small town 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
I am from southern Indiana and we did this same thing, but it was always cars that were our targets. My memories of Corning are from 1985′ to 1990. So it isn’t just a Pennsylvania thing. Indiana is the fifth biggest producer of corn,I think Iowa is number one,and Pennsylvania is a pathetic number 16! Eat it! Anyhow corn production bragging rights aside me, and my buddies had a blast doing this, and it didn’t have to be Halloween to do it either,it just had to be late summer, a weekend usually,and us to be bored. I noticed you said you didn’t corn old people,( boy that is a disturbing question.) and then in the next paragraph you said you guys targeted mean “OLD” man Haybee!? Maybe he was just older,like 60,and not 80 or something? We had safety rules too. We picked a spot on Concord road that was a long straight away,so that it didn’t startle someone that was navigating a curve into a wreck. Mostly we wanted to corn the cars if older teenage dudes we knew,because they would chase you and that is the fun part of it. When you are 11-14,older teens would always rib you because you were younger,but not too mean I guess they looked at us as annoying little brothers in fact it was all my older brothers friends. Anyways Corning their muscle cars while they were most likely higher than hell on weed was one way we could get back at them a bit. If I could travel back in time and be thirteen or whatever for a few days I would definitely do it. We had so much fun. I feel bad for kids these days they don’t do things like that as much,and their music is bogus Bullshit. They are always on a phone instead of just hanging out. it’s fake socializing. Or they are playing video games. Me and my friends practically lived inThe woods during summer. Anyways I really enjoyed your article. I had forgotten about all the fun things me, and my friends would do, your writing made me remember all of that!
I grew up in NW Pa– about 20 minutes- give or take from the Ohio border. My friends and I would shell field corn and hide in the weeds or the fields and throw it at passing cars. We used to laugh so hard! Would have to run as fast as we could to get away from angtry people! What good times!
I also grew up in the 70s in western PA about 25 miles NE of Pittsburgh PA. We all were monster kids, reading Creepy and Eerie mags. We all went corning after we got done trick r treating. It was a great area and time to grow up in! It was magical…
I am confused. What kind of corn fid you use that had to harden in the garage? We used dent corn aka field corn. It is hard right off the stalk. It’s used for feed. We called it tic-taking. I’m from the Jim Thorpe area for what it’s worth.
Hey, we did this back in the 60’s in West Burlington and Burlington, Iowa. Parents taught us. Grandparents taught them. Must be the German western migration that brought it here. Has a ring of pagan harvest tradition, doesn’t it? Oh, the fear it inspired!
I did the same in Burlington . Just came to mind when discussing Halloween pranks.
Great post…. I, too, grew up in Western PA and have since moved around to other parts of the country. In the late 1990s into the early 2000s I lived in the midwest….I was shocked that no one I encountered there had any idea what “corn-ing” was, despite the fact that they were surrounded by corn. How could this tradition I grew up with be completely unknown to other rural areas? It was a shock to me. How could corning be unknown to rural Iowa and Illinois? So, it is refreshing to see this blog post. I have shared my stories of corning (and bagging….that other adolescent Western PA tradition that seems unique to the area) with others, and always get fascinated yet perplexed reactions.
As I knew it, corning was a ritual, and Halloween season wasn’t a few days, it was a whole month. Corning, the threat of being corned, and sharing the stories were all a major part of my teenage life. Heck, I even offered to go corning with my teenage nephews, and I’m in my 40s….
Thanks for adding some science, history and anecdote to this apparently obscure tradition.
Fascinating post! I’d never heard of this tradition. Although I’m from corn-country, my midwestern city was also filled with the sounds of panic as I was growing up (even moreso now). We had much better access to toilet paper than corn in the city. And the objective of TP-ing, our prank of choice, was sight without sound.
You nailed it! As someone in my mid-fifties, this was a yearly tradition in North Sewickly Twp., Beaver County. Wonderful memories.
I grew up in the outskirts of Latrobe, and this was also part of our yearly tradition! I didn’t know until I was older and had left western PA that this wasn’t something that happens everywhere else.