This Oct. 31, fewer things will go bump in night

Vampires with less vamp? Boogeymen without the boo? Spooks easy on the "ook?"

Although some are haunted by the prospect, the first Halloween since America "changed" Sept. 11 has already been declared "Trick-or-Treat Lite."

If early predictions are correct, costumes will exhibit less blood and gore, theme parks will tone down the shocks, party hosts will ease up on the horror. And - out of concerns over anthrax - there will be an estimated 20 percent fewer imps, trolls, and mythic mutants knocking on stranger's doors for candy.

"There is a widespread sense across the country that the fantasy of horror and gruesomeness is inappropriate on the heels of having been visited by real horror," says Jack Santino, incoming president of the American Folklore Society and author of books on Halloween. "We are also being sensitive, even as these events continue to unfold before our eyes."

In fact, at least one governor, Arkansas' Mike Huckabee, has asked that parents find alternatives to trick-or-treating. He has said his state doesn't have enough law-enforcement personnel to examine every suspicious piece of candy.

Some say it's got to be that way. Others see a certain irony in attempts to straitjacket the home-of-the-free's annual free-for-all. If you must clean up Halloween's image, they say, don't throw out the muse - spirit and inspiration - with the merely amusing.

"It's a good thing if people are toning down the extremes in the interest of sensitivity to others' thresholds for terror or cultural sensitivities," says Pam Grese, an anthropologist at College of Wooster in Ohio who has researched Halloween for 15 years.

Such extremes might include, for instance, pushing emotional buttons with costumes using Mideast garb or dressing up like Osama bin Laden.

For example, North Hollywood costume store owner James Albright, who five years ago carried controversial O.J. Simpson masks, says he's holding a moratorium on controversial costumes. "A guy came in here wanting to be a Taliban and laughing, and I told him where to go," says Mr. Albright of Gilbert Costumes. "I didn't think it was a good idea, and I don't want to be responsible for anyone getting hurt."

If some culture watchers see irony in self-conscious attempts to rein in the outer fringe practices of Halloween, others welcome the opportunity in the wake of America's post-Sept. 11 to reexamine all things American. Or in this case, American-ized.

In the ancient festival known as Samhain, the Celts believed that the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living. People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables. They lit bonfires to honor the dead and aid them on their journey. When Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic pagans, they emphasized prayer, togetherness, gratitude for the harvest, and protection from the coming winter.

But such practices have been overshadowed in America's post-war suburban boom that turned Halloween into a growth industry first for kids and in recent years, adults. Retail sales associated with Halloween will top $7 billion this year, making Halloween the second-highest consumer holiday of the year after Christmas.

Today, Halloween in America draws on dozens of ever-evolving customs, some reenacting the rituals of the holiday's dark side - dressing up as witches, ghosts, and skeletons - and those celebrating the aspects of Christian All Saints observances.

It is this latter side, with an overlay of American patriotism, which will be getting a boost this year, retailers say. Sales of red, white, and blue costumes are through the roof, as are flag-painted jack-o-lanterns and sales of police and firefighter uniforms.

"It is ironic that the American holiday more or less understood to be the most rebellious, subversive, and abnormal is now being embraced - almost defiantly - by those who do not want to be knocked off center by terrorists," says Mr. Santino.

While some observers lament the expected lack of trick-or-treaters trolling for candy, others see opportunity for substantive change."If ever there was a time to reinvent Halloween, this is the year to do it," says Frank Farley, a social psychologist at Temple University in Pennsylvania. "Over the years, we've institutionalized horror into fun for kids," he says. "Maybe this is the time to take a deeper look at that."

Such discussions seem a bit esoteric to Antonio Uribi, a 20-something cable guy trying on wizard robes at Gilbert Costumes.

"We're just going to cool it a bit this year - not go out on the streets, go easy on the blood and guts," he says, swinging a rubber-spiked skull mace. "I'm not thinking any further than that."

And Arkansas mom Alana Merritt McCafferty says she isn't altering her traditions one Snickers bar's worth out of fear of terrorists. In fact, she is taking her daughter to a town nearly two hours away, so that she can hit some "primo" neighborhoods that give out tons of candy and toys.

"You can't live your life in fear," she says. "We are celebrating like any other year."

Suzi Parker contributed to this report from Little Rock, Ark.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.