This Halloween, adults (and dogs) scare less easily

Halloween has gone to the dogs.

Last year Americans were dressing up like Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty to celebrate the holiday the US inherited from Europe. But a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the patriotic displays are being replaced by canines and superheroes.

Scooby-Doo is a favorite among adults and kids this year, as are costumes for pets, a fact that has Fidos across the nation scampering under beds to avoid looking like Superman.

That flamboyance is one indication that Halloween is shaking off the pall that was over it last year – when children in at least one state were encouraged not to trick-or-treat thanks to Anthrax concerns – and is again a way for people to let off steam before winter arrives.

By decorating their homes and greeting strangers on their porches, Americans may also be countering the unsettling effects of sniper attacks and terrorism.

"There's the whole element of fear we have to deal with now, and I think the best way to defeat that is by making connections with your neighbors," says Lesley Bannatyne, author of books on Halloween and its traditions.

Pop culture, rather than patriotism, is dictating costume choices this year. Gruesome garb is on the wane, as it was last year, with more adults and kids wanting to impersonate the main character from the summer blockbuster "Spider-Man," or "SpongeBob SquarePants," a TV cartoon with a huge following.

Halloween home decorations are also fast approaching movie quality. Guns that shoot cobwebs are available to rent for $50. For those with deep pockets, there's a $3,000 "Living Wall" that comes to life as a head and a pair of hands try to poke through the bricks.

But gauging the enthusiasm for the holiday in 2002 depends as much on the economy as the nation's festive spirit.

At the Illusive Skull Costume Castle in Fairmont, W.Va., co-owner Pamela Markel sees a little more interest in the holiday than last year, when people were preoccupied with the terrorist attacks.

"This year people seem more excited, but the parties seem more family oriented," Ms. Markel says. Still, she adds, "they are watching what they spend."

Among her customers, the big sellers have been fairies and elves – influenced by the "Lord of the Rings" movie – and Marilyn Monroe costumes. "I just don't think people want to be really scary," she says.

In New England, Boston Costume was packed with adults looking for the perfect outfit last Saturday, a reminder that the holiday is no longer just for children.

Owner Dave Bertolino says his sales are equal to what they were two years ago, and up from last year (including a run on his pet costumes, for which he says demand is increasing).

Many of his customers on Saturday were last-minute shoppers headed to parties that same night.

One customer, Dan McGurrin, says he hasn't dressed up since college. "It's been a while," he explains while shopping with his girlfriend, Sarah D'Oench, for accessories such as vampire fangs.

"We were just kind of looking for ideas on TV," she says of their plan to dress up as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" characters.

The swarm at Boston Costume suggests what statistics have yet to bear out: "I think adults are back in the swing of things this year," says Sal Perisano, CEO of iParty, a Massachusetts-based chain with stores in the Northeast and Florida.

In the past 20 years, Halloween has become as much an adult celebration as one for kids. No longer is it the domain of one spooky night, but lasts for a month, say retailers. For adults, dressing up themselves, their animals, and their homes affords an opportunity for creativity that few holidays do.

And it wasn't always for kids, either. As Halloween evolved in England, Ireland, and Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries it included adults, who were part of the groups of poor people who wore masks and begged for sweets and money around the holiday connected with the supernatural, says Ms. Bannatyne.

The concept of Halloween came to America with immigrants in the 19th century, and now the US exports aspects of it around the globe. English children trick-or-treat (a tradition that started in the US in the 1930s and 40s), and Paris nightclubs lure tourists by hosting American-style Halloween parties.

Cultural experts caution against reading too much into the decrease in interest in ghoulish costumes this year. It could be a reaction to terrorism, but more likely it's a reflection there being fewer horror movies to imitate, says Dan Cook, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois.

That bears up in Ms. Markel's shop, where once popular characters from 1980s horror films – like Freddy Krueger from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" or Jason from the "Friday the 13th" movies – are no longer flying off the shelves.

If Halloween is about capitalizing on the opportunity to make make-believe you're someone else, it appears that no one wants to be in Saddam Hussein's shoes, but everyone would like to be Richard Nixon.

"It's our bestselling mask," next to Spider-Man, says Boston Costume's Bertolino.

A doggie-sized version can't be far behind.

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