BOSTON — Halloween is just a howl away, but for Detroit mother Lynn Bradley, this year's trick-or-treating is as gone as the grin on last year's jack-o'-lantern. She and daughters Karyn and Karmyn got their fill of costumes and candy treats last weekend at the "Silence the Violence" Costume Ball, at the Motor City's Cobo Hall. "It was a lot safer, plus it was the daytime," Ms. Bradley explains.
Detroit, long troubled by Halloween violence, is among a growing number of communities nationwide that are offering a wide range of alternatives to traditional trick-or-treating. Motives range from safety concerns to religious beliefs. Even as Halloween has mushroomed into a $2.5 billion event - for costumes, candy, and decorations - towns and cities are trying to channel the celebrations away from the season's darker underside.
*Camden, N.J., which also has struggled with arson fires on Devil's Night (Halloween Eve), has a weekend pumpkin hunt and city-sponsored trick or treat.
*Los Angeles's 150 city recreation centers have a specific mandate to sponsor Halloween evening programs, geared toward luring kids off the streets and into safely scheduled activities.
"Children aren't safe taking candy from strangers or being out on dark streets," says Sue McElvogue, recreation director at Granada Hills Recreational Center. The center kicks off the night at 4 p.m. with a puppet show, followed by a kids' costume parade and an all-new Doggy Parade contest in which costumed dogs get awards for being the prettiest, scariest, and ugliest.
*In Peachtree City, Ga., in response to religious concerns, schoolchildren are no longer allowed to dress up in any costume that might evoke satanic imagery. Instead, they celebrate a "Book Character Dress-up Day."
"The kids seem to accept it. They can be anything they want, but they can't do the scary stuff," explains Susan Lowe, the Peachtree Elementary school clerk. Ms. Lowe says many of her neighbors feel the traditional Halloween has overtones of devil worship. Other Georgia towns offer events such as "Hattoween," a headware contest, and fall festivals with hayrides.
Trying to bottle the genie
Some say efforts to control Halloween are like trying to put Aladdin's genie back in the bottle.
"It doesn't work," says Jack Santino, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, author of a book about the holiday. Part of the attraction of Halloween is being out in the dark, he says, doing things we don't usually do. "This is the closest thing we have to a national Mardi Gras, where people can masquerade and make fanciful comments about life."
He notes that it is ironic that today's trick-or-treating was yesterday's solution to Halloween craziness. "It was created by a bunch of chambers of commerce back in the '30s," he says.
As for safety, Santino wonders whether the real threat to children hasn't been overplayed. He acknowledges the scares during the 1980s over tainted candy and razor blades, but says that after the first scare, most research has never turned up an actual razor blade in an apple.
The professor says what's significant is that we believe the threat from strangers is real. "Halloween also allows us to confront our fears in a safe way," he says. As a culture, we have popularized the idea of vampires, but we react deeply to the possibility that a stranger might be tampering with innocent childrens' treats, giving us the bogeyman for the '90s.
The big sell
Santino also points out another troubling aspect of Halloween, namely the triumph of commercially made treats. "The death of homemade treats is simply more evidence of increasing consumerism in today's society," he adds.
Of course, any parents who have ever worried about commercialization during the Christmas season may roll their eyes at Halloween. Shelf space for ghost and goblin decorations now rivals the winter holiday. The National Retail Federation, a trade group, confirms that the fall celebration is second only to Christmas in money spent on decorations. One billion dollars will be spent on costumes, $900 million on candy, $700 million on decorations and greeting cards.
And those aren't the only ways for parents to part with their money.
Theme parks go ghoulish
Tim O'Brien, an editor at the trade publication Entertainment Business, says the number of special Halloween events at theme parks has doubled nationally in the past five years alone.
He concedes that the extended season helps the bottom line. But he says the popularity of Halloween events is also a reflection of society's fascinations. "There is a new interest in macabre themes. Maybe because we're getting more violent in general, people need a safe way to laugh at blood and guts, too."
Sayre Wiseman, a Disneyland producer in charge of "Mickey's Halloween Treat," now in its second year, agrees. "We're definitely responding to the growing demand for a safe place to take kids trick-or-treating," she says.
The fact that a family of four will now drive an hour and a half and pay more than $100 for what kids a generation ago could get free outside their own front doors may tell the whole story. Angeleno Monica Kim, on her way out of "the happiest place on earth" with her two children Friday night, echoes her counterpart in Detroit. "It's safe, it's easy. This is it for us."