Anita Benarde
Anthony Breznican
October 16, 2017 AT 08:00 AM EDT

Torn flesh smeared on the sidewalk. Guts strewn across the lawns. Skin peeling in the morning sun.

This was the massacre Anita Benarde and her neighbors awoke to discover three days before Halloween in 1969, after a vandal went doorstep-to-doorstep in the night, shattering jack-o-lanterns. It wasn’t exactly the crime of the century, but this effort to spoil the holiday actually inspired one of its most beloved tales: The Pumpkin Smasher.

First published in 1972, Benarde’s book of smoky inks and sunset oranges was a hallmark of Weekly Reader lists for decades before falling out of print, telling the story of a town that unites to foil a gourd-demolishing witch.

The book was revived and reissued by the author and artist herself in 2012 after she discovered grown-up fans buying old copies for exorbitant prices on eBay. What many don’t know is that the story really happened.

Not the witch part. Although … maybe? Benarde and her neighbors never nabbed the actual culprit.

“We were in a town where Halloween reigned supreme. Everybody took part in it,” says Benarde, now 92. Back then, she was a mom of three, living in a Princeton, New Jersey, neighborhood that, like her book, was unusual for being racially integrated. That’s one reason the trashing of the decorations was such an affront.

Anita Benarde

This was a happy neighborhood. A place where people from different walks of life came together, many of them teaching or studying at the university.

“For someone to come and disrupt Halloween, it was just unbelievable,” Benarde says.

After the attack, suspicions were stoked. “But we couldn’t put the blame on a person. We couldn’t put the blame on an animal, like a dog,” Benarde recalls. “There was one boy we thought had done it because he was walking around with a crutch. We were thinking Jimmy kicked them all and hurt his leg. But we didn’t know. Maybe it was someone from out of the area.”

Anita Benarde

Rather than turn on each other with accusations or blame, residents of the neighborhood united. “Oh, it was a mess,” Benarde says. “But we were going to fight it. We all decided we were going to go out and get more pumpkins.” But being an artist, she also had another idea. She rolled a basketball-sized rock into her front yard and painted it orange, with triangular eyes and a crooked grin.

If the smasher returned, he (or she) wouldn’t crack that one. Ultimately, this concept became the climax of her storybook — only with a much bigger rock.

“I just wanted to do something about it and make them understand how wrong they were. And that we bounced back,” she says. “Even in my anger, I wasn’t going to let that get the best of me.”

Anita Benarde

Many of the characters in the book were inspired by real people. Mrs. Patchett, the schoolteacher who features prominently in the story, was based on Benarde’s neighbor, who was known for protecting and watching out for neighborhood children. “Her real name was Mrs. Williams, she lived across the street, and she was the school crossing guard,” the author said. “But she’s not living anymore.”

Even the Turner twins, who come up with the idea to thwart the witch with a giant rock painted like a pumpkin, were based on twins who lived in the neighborhood. “The real name was McGrath. I didn’t want just a boy to do something, or just a girl to do something,” Benarde says of the mischievous heroes. “So I made it twins so they were both equally important and both contributed. I was very conscious of that, even at that moment.”

Fans have also noted that another real-life figure seems to turn up in the crowd scene above. Doesn’t that look like Stephen King, just under the General Store sign? But in 1972, the author was still two years away from his big breakthrough with his first novel, Carrie.

It’s just a coincidence, according to Benarde, who doesn’t claim to have any prophetic insight. “That is so funny, yeah!” she says, agreeing it does look like him. “I never thought of that.”

The author says she’s delighted the book is still being passed on to new readers and hopes there is an enduring message in this 45-year-old story.

Stay strong. Hold together. And don’t let the would-be smashers break you.

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