There's a disembodied hand hanging out of the mailbox on the front porch of the Elias home in Rodgers Forge. But by the time you make your way through the yard, that hand won't be a bit of a surprise.
That's because on the way up the front walk you'll encounter two tombstones, two faceless scarecrows leaning against a stone bench, a huge, black, spider-like creature, shrubbery bedecked in what looks like spider webs and skeletons rising out of bales of hay. Cast your eyes upward and lock gazes with two ghosts peering out of one second-story window, a reddressed ghoul leering out the other. And on the porch chairs are a witch and a monster, just lounging around.
Welcome to Halloween in the '90s, when -- for some people -- a jack-o-lantern, a few cornstalks and the by-now ubiquitous pumpkin leaf bags just don't say quite enough about the time of the year.
In neighborhoods from Jarrettsville to Federal Hill to Brooklyn Park, elaborately decorated homes make a statement loud and clear: You don't have to wait for Christmas to festoon your house, yard, trees and shrubbery with all the trappings of the season.
"I'm a witch," Maria Elias said of her reasons for turning her house and yard into a specter from the darkside. "I was born on Halloween and I believe in it.
"Besides," she added, "it's just so much fun. My kids [ages 9 and 10] love it. Even my husband gets into it. And sometimes even I will do a double-take as I come up the walk."
Although holiday decorating has received a little bit of study at academic levels, explanations are more likely to be found in the neighborhoodshoods than in the professional journals, suggested Mary Sies, professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park.
"The research that has been done shows that there is no onreason why people choose to decorate," Dr. Sies said. "Sometimes it's neighborhood competitions, sometimes it's efforts to do something special for the kids. Why people decorate their houses is a fairly personal thing."
For Maria Elias' across-the-street neighbor, Malyce Bielawski, the main reason for Halloween decorating is fun. Her yard features a skeleton hanging from one tree, a witch in another, ghosts hanging from the branches and a huge trellis-like spider web. "I love to see the little kids come by and watch how they react," she said, adding, "I don't think there's any kind of sociological import to be attached to this.
"One neighbor sees what another is doing and it catches on," Ms. Bielawski said about the way the custom is spreading.
In fact, it can be the kids themselves who are responsible for the spread of Halloween decorating, said Jennifer Frick of Jarrettsville. "When a family down the street saw our scarecrows, the little girl just begged her family to do it, too." On the Frick lawn is a scarecrow family, along with piles of pumpkins.
"It definitely fosters a sense of neighborhood," Ms. Frick said. And she and other Halloween decorators agreed that the seasonal decor alerts trick-or-treaters that this is a home where the little beggars will be welcome.
The increase in the custom has definitely been noticed -- and encouraged -- by some retailers, with a number of mail-order catalogs getting in the act, offering merchandise such as ghost lights, haunted house wreaths -- even a rug that says "Boo!"
"People seem to be getting more and more into the decorative mode," said Vicki Horst, a saleswoman at Frank's Nursery and Crafts in Towson. The store carries a large selection of skeletons, ghosts, special lights and other ghoulish accouterments. It's not unusual, she said, for a family to spend $100 on Halloween decorations.
Ms. Horst speculated that Halloween has attracted more attention than usual this year because "everyone is saying that the year has gone by so fast, they don't want Christmas to be here yet. So they're making a big deal about Halloween."
At Weber's Cider Mill Farm near Towson the increasing interest in Halloween decorating has been reflected in the growing number of families who participate in the farm's scarecrow-making program. What began as a one-weekend-a-year activity 10 years ago has grown into an autumn-long opportunity to stuff old clothes (provided by Weber's) with straw and assemble the parts into a scarecrow. Scarecrows are a prominent feature of almost all Halloween-decorated homes.
"People are more home-oriented," Steve Weber said of the scarecrow-making (which costs $12.50) and decorating. "Also, it's entertainment. Making the scarecrow is an incredible amount of fun for a family and there's no child too small to get involved." He estimated that more that 1,200 scarecrows will be constructed and taken home by Weber's customers this fall.
Scarecrows, ghosts, monsters, spiders, graves -- "it brings it all together," said Paula Miller, whose Brooklyn Park yard and porch feature all these and more. And Ms. Miller offered perhaps the most practical reason to decorate for Halloween.
"Why not?" she said. "Everybody decorates for everything else."