Tonight at dusk, Tommy Smith will don an oversized alien head with a fluorescent-silver bodysuit. He will scramble out his front door and skip through his middle-class neighborhood making Martian noises through a gauze-covered mouth hole.
Like neighboring kids in his San Fernando Valley community, Tommy loves the sanctioned lunacy of Halloween. Like an increasing number of participants in trick-or-treating, costume-wearing parties, and theme-park-sized ghoul-fests, Mr. Smith is a middle-aged adult.
"I can't believe how much I look forward to this night," says Smith, a stockbroker and father of two. "It's the only time of the year when I can put away protocol and be a little nutty."
The getting-in-touch-with-your-inner-goblin sentiment is behind one of the biggest, countrywide marketing and merchan- dising juggernauts in recent years. The phenomenon is sparked by the coming of age of baby boomers who want to hold on to a childhood ritual and pass it on to their kids.
The new participation by adults has expanded in recent years to embrace concerns about childhood safety during trick-or-treating and renewed drives by disconnected communities to reconnect with neighbors.
"Adults getting into Halloween is the big trend in holiday entertainment over the past five years," says Tim O'Brien, editor of Amusement Business Magazine, a trade publication for theme parks.
"It may be second only to Christmas in the amount of stuff retailers generate to feed demand," he says. "That has in turn fed more interest, which feeds more merchandise in a vicious cycle."
As seen in communities from Boston to San Diego, the phenomenon begins with an explosion of house decorations that go up well before the holiday and remain in place well after. Newly ubiquitous neighborhood sites range from 20-foot-high tombstones and motion-activated scream machines to lawn-size laser shows. There are also more expensive candy, costumes, and high-tech gadgetry, including fog machines.
"This is getting a little ridiculous," says Bill Harley, a professional storyteller in Seekonk, Mass. "When I was a kid, I wore a T-shirt with Casper the Ghost on the front. Today, my son wants to construct a fully operable, latex dinosaur. My neighbors are putting up speakers for CD sound effects and pulleys for swinging scarecrows."
According to Jack Santino, a pop-culture specialist at Bowling Green University in Ohio, the current situation began like this:
Although trick-or-treating was practiced sporadically in the 1930s, its widespread practice did not begin until the 1950s, when civic groups and police encouraged such activity as a way of containing rampant pranksterism. The first generation to really follow the custom has now grown up with a combination of fond memories and more affluence.
"Parents have more money to spend on their kids as well as themselves," says Carol Scott, a marketing professor at the Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA. "Designers have gotten more savvy about creating merchandise that appeals to both markets at once. It multiplies interest in both directions."
Top national theme parks long ago got into the act by sponsoring month-long schedules of "fright nights" and "Halloween Howls" that involve children-centered activities such as sing-alongs, skits, and face-painting by characters like Twinkles the Friendly Witch.
Now, some are aiming not only specifically, but exclusively at adults.
"We are going for a visceral terror that is inconsistent with young children," says Elliot Sekuler, director of publicity for Universal Studios, Hollywood.
Following the success of adults-only horror nights at their Florida park, officials this year opened "Halloween Horror Nights." Fright-seekers more than 18 years old must plop down $32 for such attractions as "March of the Zombies" - where audience members make their way through the sometimes-grizzly proceedings - and "Circus of Horrors," which displays sword-swallowing, fire-eating, and skin-piercing.
"This was definitely not for kids," says Tom Nagy, a sales manager who left two kids at home to attend with his wife and four friends. He visited a "classified government facility" known as "Area 51," where he encountered a 50-foot spacecraft and witnessed an alien autopsy.
"It was definitely offbeat stuff, some of it pretty foul."
Will he be going next year?
"Well, yeah," he says, "It's the only time of the year when I get a chance to not have to be a parent."