Remember the Halloween your daughter wanted to be Madonna and nothing less than bleaching her hair would do? Remember the year you stayed up till midnight gluing feathers on a yellow leotard so your 4-year-old could be Big Bird?
"It happens every year," says Carolyn Hutchings, salesperson at Dannemann Fabrics in Timonium. "Parents are in here and they're desperate. One child wanted to be a Ninja Turtle. One wanted to be a wienie-in-a-bun. One woman had a book of really cute costumes, but they weren't anything she could convince her son to be. One woman stood in here yesterday and said, 'When did we lose control?' "
And you thought Stephen King was scary.
For the past few weeks, parents have been scouring stores for the perfect items for those perfect costumes. "As a parent you want [your child] to look unique or authentic, to feel transformed into a wonderful character," says Marian Hoffman, a free-lance editor who spent Sunday afternoon sewing brown fringe on white long johns for her pint-sized Davy Crockett. "The truth of the matter is all they want to do is to put on a baseball hat and have fun."
Besides, she says, "there are no brown sweats anywhere. Trust me!"
Almost any parent can come up with a Halloween horror story -- and not necessarily of the ghost-and-ghoulie variety. Take, for example, the case of the sheet slasher: "Once I came home from work and found a nose and a mouth cut into my best sheet," says Ginger Bellerose, a receptionist at the Montessori School and a mother of two.
Last Friday morning, music teacher Cindy Harkum found herself sewing a Hawaiian grass skirt (that had fallen apart moments before the school party) onto her 11-year-old daughter and a cardboard sword ostensibly through her 7-year-old son (who was disguised as a dead knight).
"I do some mighty strange things as a mother," she thought. "I wonder why?"
In part, it's because "parents simply remember their own fun," says Roger Fink, assistant professor of psychology at Towson State University.
But sometimes well-meaning mothers and fathers can get caught in a balancing act: providing choices and encouraging imagination -- without driving themselves costume crazy.
"Choices are wonderful and parents who give choices are doina good thing -- as long as it doesn't cause a parent pain," he says. "So if you restrict the choices, or find simple or not too expensive ways to fulfill the choice, it's great.
"Parents need to take a stand and that's not always easy," he advises. "Just say 'I'm sorry, honey. I can't do that this year.' or 'That won't work or we'll have to do it in a simpler way.' "
Ms. Hoffman has learned to use a laid-back approach. Her Halloween story began about a week ago when William, 5, found a Davy Crockett hat in the attic. Nothing but a Davy costume would do. Nothing, that is, until William saw the karate outfit his aunt had given him.
Karate Kid, it was, says Ms. Hoffman.
But that night he wore his pajamas with a skeleton printed on them and. . .
"We negotiated," she says. William dressed as Davy at one party, the Karate Kid at school and (unless he changes his mind) will be a skeleton tonight.
In the meantime, however, Ms. Hoffman's 8-year-old son, Matthew, decided he wanted to be Davy Crockett at the party during which William was the Karate Kid until he saw how good the martial arts costume looked, then he put on his own karate outfit and went as his brother's twin.
This year's costumes may not win prizes for authenticity, Ms. Hoffman says. "But I realized it's more an ego thing with parents. I realized as long as Matthew had some fringe sewn on somewhere he thought he looked like Davy Crockett. In a way, I feel guilty for not doing more. But I'm glad I didn't because I'd be forcing them to wear particular costumes."
Other parents have developed different methods. Anita Durel uses the advance-notice technique. "We start asking what they want to be in September because we know it's going to change three or four times before Halloween, especially in the last week. Then, at the last minute, we go a little crazy," says the Baltimore mother of two boys.
But her secret for great kid costumes (which have varied from a "hung man," complete with a noose that stood straight up into the air, to Cal Ripken Jr.) is "we never throw anything out," she says. In fact, the Durels once bought 15 civil defense helmets for a total of $5 from a salvage store "because we knew they'd come in handy."
However, nursery school teacher Mary Thompson uses the sneak attack method with her three children: "We don't mention [costumes] until we're actually ready to start sewing. Maybe a week before Halloween because it's going to change over and over."