Less Fright,

More Fun

Real-life terror could make Halloween a ghost of its former self, as revelers instead turn to American heroes for costume inspiration.

October 28, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

This year America's most frightful holiday has been eclipsed by something infinitely more frightful. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the war in Afghanistan and the anthrax scares, some parents are planning a quieter Halloween. Some are using the holiday as a way to cheer themselves and their children up or to express their patriotism. But not many have the stomach for the usual graveyard decorating, fake blood and gory jokes.

"I'm not going to any haunted houses this year, where I would in the past," says Mary Myers of Towson, who adds that her two kids were disturbed by the attacks and don't want frightening costumes this year. Michele, 13, will dress up as an "Army person" while her younger brother, Michael, 9, is planning to be a baseball player.

Some horror-filled events were canceled this year as a result of the attacks, like the Fright House-Extreme Scream Park in the nation's capital. The mega-haunted house with multimedia effects would have accommodated 850 "victims" an hour.

"Everyone is being very cautious," says Larry McKenzie, editor of the online halloweenmagazine.com, who hears from retailers and Halloween enthusiasts around the country. "They're making sure they don't offend anyone. You'll see a lot less graveyard-type decorating this year."

Turning an inherently ghoulish holiday into an inoffensive celebration can be a matter of delicate compromise. Most retail stores ordered their Halloween costumes and accessories last spring, long before anyone knew a fake hand with a bloody stump might not seem in the best of taste after a national tragedy that left thousands dead and an ongoing war.

The Spencer Gifts chain, which bills itself as "Halloween Headquarters," has taken severed limbs out of its windows. You can still find them inside, says Paul Butcher, assistant manager of the Harford Mall store, "But we've covered the ends so they look like they're coming out of the ground."

The irony is that kids aren't necessarily the ones that need protecting from Halloween's more frightening and tasteless side. They may not even connect the horrifying events they saw on TV with a holiday six weeks later that means Snickers bars to them, not death and destruction.

"The parents are suffering as much from the residual effects as the children," says Stephanie Fisher, headmistress of Ruxton Country School in Owings Mills. "What I think we'll see this Halloween is a much more cautious parent body. We've been reminded how precious life and safety are."

Many moms and dads will be extra-safety-conscious this year -- not because of anything as specific as the possibility of another terrorist attack, but because they've seen that loved ones can die horribly and randomly.

They are a little worn down, a little frazzled. They want to keep the holiday low-key and low-stress. Mothers are happier if their children decided to be Tigger rather than a vampire with bloody teeth.

"A lot of mothers don't want their children dressing in scary costumes," says one mother, Jennifer Verklin of Annapolis. "I think we've had enough of that. We're just getting together to have a little happy Halloween party with the children. Safety is an issue. We're trying to keep them at home or in one place, and we're going trick-or-treating with them."

Her oldest son, Matthew, 12, wants to be a policeman; and 10-year-old Nicholas is dressing up as an Air Force pilot. Emily, who's 9, will have an "I Dream of Jeannie" costume. (While you won't see a lot of Arab sheik costumes this Halloween, Middle Eastern costumes for girls and women such as belly dancers, female genies and Aladdin's girlfriend, Jasmine, haven't lost their popularity, according to costumers and mothers.)

"They were very worried, very afraid, and very worried about us," Verklin says of her kids and last month's tragedy. "Our oldest son called from school to see if we were OK, even though he knew his dad didn't work in Washington."

"They're feeling very patriotic at this point," she adds as she describes their costumes. "We're encouraging them to be something American."

The events that followed Sept. 11 have created new superheroes for kids. Firemen and policemen costumes are outselling Superman and Spiderman. Try buying a Little Firefighter costume on the Web at amazon.com, and you'll find it's been back-ordered, even though it sells for $89.99 when it's in stock.

With the shortage, some moms are creating their own costumes. Robin Comotto of Towson found a policeman's hat and added a whistle, baton, mirrored sunglasses, handcuffs, walkie-talkie and ticket book -- but no gun -- for her 7-year-old son, Will. Although she thought she had kept Will and 5-year-old Allison (who'll be dressing up as Jasmine) away from the news, her son said to her anxiously after the World Trade Center attack, "It must be really dangerous to be a fireman or a policeman." He finally decided to be a police officer anyway.

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