When adults can't give up trick-or-treat Halloween: Some people with jobs and cars and deep voices will dress up and go door to door tomorrow night.

October 30, 1997|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

Adults in strange costumes escorting their inner child from door to door! Relationships ripped apart at the seams like an overstuffed bag of candy!

Today, on Halloween eve, we examine twentysomething trick-or-treaters: Are they aging sociopaths desperately trying to cling to their childhoods, costumed candy addicts or frighteningly free spirits?

Join us as we study this little-known disorder.

A case study

Jennifer Koerner is an otherwise normal 23-year-old assistant for marketing at Towson University. Yet each Halloween, she still dresses up and goes trick-or-treating, even dragging reluctant roommates along.

When questioned about this developmental abnormality, Koerner doesn't sound like a sugar freak with a wicked case of arrested development.

In fact, she seems relatively well-adjusted. And her alibi is seamless: With her birthday just two days before Halloween, she's always plunged head-first into the holiday.

"Birthdays and Halloween have always gone hand in hand," she says. "Every birthday cake I had was shaped like a pumpkin or a cat."

But below Koerner's enthusiastic surface, frightening truths may lurk.

A panel of experts has a lot to say about trick-or-treaters who have been around the block too many times.

Meet Marcia Summers, a professor of educational psychology at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. She says kids generally give up trick-or-treating around the age of 12.

"Most kids usually get embarrassed and they stop," says Summers, who specializes in early childhood development. "That's the natural dividing line."

But the transition isn't always so natural. It certainly wasn't with Koerner.

Sadly, it hasn't been with Summers' 14-year-old daughter, either. Despite her mother's pleas, she still goes door-to-door every Oct. 31, showing symptoms of chronic trick-or-treating.

Summers says she is determined to stop her daughter's degeneration dead in its tracks.

"I think she's too old," Summers says. "Anyone with a bust size bigger than mine is too old to go trick-or-treating."

Covering up

Fredrick Koenig, a professor of social psychology at Tulane University in New Orleans, cites the lure of the mask as a chief component of the affliction.

These so-called "bagheads" are often seduced by the thrill of becoming anonymous or assuming another identity on the wildest night of the year.

"Psychological studies show that people who wear masks are much less inhibited," he says. "Halloween is a time when you can do audacious things and they're sanctioned. It releases you from the normal controls."

The appeal of covering up is powerful, Koerner concedes. She recalls the high she experienced one recent Halloween when she masqueraded as one of the Three Blind Mice. "It's not every day you get to be blind and aimlessly bump into people," she says.

This year, she's going a more conventional route, dressing as the Cowardly Lion from "The Wizard of Oz." But many of her past incarnations have been bizarre, even perverse.

Even in childhood, Koerner tested the boundaries of decency, corrupting the most innocent of costumes. No simple white rabbit suit for Koerner; she preferred maroon.

In cases like Koerner's, the terminal trick-or-treater often drags loved ones into the compulsion.

Two years ago, Koerner's problem climaxed in co-dependency: Her reluctant fiance was forced to play Raggedy Andy to her Raggedy Ann.

A horrifying addiction

Other experts point to an insatiable desire for sweets as a key to the sickness.

"You don't have to go out and buy candy," points out Caren DeBernardo, a clinical psychologist at the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Towson. "It's a pretty good scam, if you think about it.

Koerner admits that a trick-or-treater's methods of obtaining the classiest loot sharpen with age.

In high school, she and her friends would get in a car and cruise more affluent neighborhoods in pursuit of better candy.

"Instead of getting the kid-sized candy bars, we'd get the big ones," Koerner says. The rich-neighborhood tactic is the pride of her hoarding career.

DeBernardo says Koerner's cockiness is a common defense mechanism clouding the real issues.

"If you have a strategy to collect the most candy you can in the shortest amount of time, that's a sign you're too old to be trick-or-treating," she says.

Are you threatening me?

Still, at the core of this neurosis, it seems, is a naive, almost touching bravery. After all, going trick-or-treating at an advanced age can set you up for all kinds of social rejection.

For instance, people may question the motives -- and maturity -- of an almost-adult who would compete for candy with masked toddlers under the cloak of darkness. Some may even withhold treats.

Koerner admits she's gotten her share of odd looks. Some might call it denial, but she insists it doesn't bother her.

"I don't get embarrassed very easily," she says.

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