They stumble out onto darkened streets and polished suburban neighborhoods, stomping over the browning remains of dead leaves and walking past the maniacal grins of jack-o-lanterns. Up and down, block after block, house after house. Each time, they knock, they pose, they smile. They say the same line: “Trick-or-treat!” Candy is dumped into their bags, or pillowcases, or pumpkin-shaped buckets; they plunder bowls with fast hands, their acquisition followed by a rehearsed, sickly sweet “thank you!”

Then onto the next house, and so the cycle repeats.

Each dons a costume like battle armor, a way to protect them against the autumn chill, save some semblance of anonymity, and wage an uncompromising war against their peers in a race to the latest and greatest McMansion. A hunt for the best candy starts unofficially, and no winner or loser is declared, but it’s an unspoken agreement that the hunt, come sundown, will be raging till the last of the candy is given away, or till the hunters are dragged off by spoilsport parents and whispers of the dreaded bedtime.

It’s all made worth it when you stumble upon that one, glorious home, tucked away like an unassuming diamond in the rough, serving up full-size candy bars and nothing but. They survey the offerings with wide eyes and gaping mouths, wondering if they can grab two instead of one without getting caught.

Other homes, meanwhile, offer stingy supplies of the mockingly-titled fun-sized candy, a slap in the face to the sweat-streaked warriors of Halloween night. After climbing dozens of steps, the last thing they want to find is a single, solitary Tootsie roll, or not-fun fun-sized Snickers bar (“just take one, sweetie!“) waiting for them. They can hardly contain their disappointment, and now the obligatory “thank you” comes with a trace of bitter disdain. They huff back down the stairs and shrug off questions of “what’d you get?” with an equally bitter “nothing good” or just simply “I don’t want to say.”

But back to the hunt, and even when fraught with disappointment (as it so often is), the hunt is good. The hunt is the only time when they can demand candy from strangers, so they take the sour with the sweet and stifle their complaints long enough to seek out the elusive full-sized bars or a comparable treasure, like Linus’s quest to see the Great Pumpkin.

There are witches, wizards; princesses in long wigs and dresses, who start off the night with beaming smiles and end up passed out in strollers they’ve outgrown or in the arms of their grownup; pirates with fake birds on their shoulders (an accessory that will be buried somewhere in their closet and completely forgotten by the following month), paired with an eyepatch they’ll never wear again. A collection of pint-sized superheroes stand around a street corner and peer into their bags, swapping pieces; a trio of trick-or-treaters dressed up like cartoon characters spiral into candy-crazed madness as the night goes on, their sanity unspooling as they wage their war for the good stuff, ending with them being dragged away as they cry out, “Just one more house, pleaassseee!

And, as night turns to day, as the trick-or-treaters vanish into their houses and change out of their costumes, they will leave behind nothing but a few wrappers. Halloween will end, and normal life will resume; those who had been princesses and pirates and superheroes and mythical creatures, will, by the light of day, return to kid form. But each one will go to bed with dreams of next year’s hunt, costumes and candy swirling through their heads.