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A Halloween with less horror

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Joe Jensen of Chicago has been as horrified as anyone by the carnage in New York and Washington.

"There's nothing more nightmarish than what we just went through the last two weeks," he said.

But in his job as creative director for Haunted America, Jensen's job is to scare people with haunted houses filled with high technology, special effects and professional actors. And with Halloween a mere month away, he had to ask himself a question: Is the public ready for pretend horror when many are still numb from real-life terrorist attacks?

It may be too soon to know what the public mood will be by the end of October, but Jensen isn't taking any chances.

After debating whether to proceed at all, Jensen has completely rethought Hades Revenge, the haunted attraction that he has been putting together at the Tweeter Center in Tinley Park.

Out went true-life horror depictions, like dead bodies and mortuaries. In went a fantasy world featuring a lost civilization.

"We wanted to take people to a different place, to give them more of an escape," he said.

Meanwhile, Halloween attractions on the East Coast have been canceled or scaled back since the Sept. 11 events, and costume shops nationwide, including those in Chicago, have reported an increase in sales of police and firefighter costumes, a ripple effect of the heroic roles those public servants played in the disaster.

"It just makes sense to me that kids would want to identify with these heroes," said Chuck Schwartz, owner of Card and Party Warehouse in three Chicago locations. "If we start a war, who knows what will happen."

George Garcia, owner of Fantasy Costume Headquarters in Chicago, said, "We are selling more patriotic vests and Statue of Liberty costumes."

But he added that sales of more typical Halloween paraphernalia are also brisk. "People are still buying 'Scream' masks. We ran out of blood fountains and bodies. ... It was packed this weekend," Garcia said. "I had a lady buy 30 gory masks yesterday, for a church."

George W. Bush and Uncle Sam masks are also reportedly selling well. One company, mask maker Cesar, told Business Week that they have had some requests for Osama bin Laden masks, but the company has no plans to make any.

Elsewhere, activities at Chicago airports will be slightly altered, with personnel dressing up and handing out candy on Oct. 26 and Halloween day, but corresponding events with the Chicago Children's Museum at the Kids on the Fly Exhibit at O'Hare International Airport have been canceled.

Cindy Gatziolis of the Mayor's Office of Special Events cited security reasons, and said, "[That] will not be happening because of the inability to put non-ticketed passengers beyond the check-in points."

The Skokie Park District is toning down its Scream Scene haunted house as well. "There will be some changes to make it less scary," said communications manager Margaret Moreira. "They're going to do more of the science-fiction horror rather than the gory kind of traditional horror."

At least one Chicago psychiatrist, however, believes it might be therapeutic for the holiday to go on as usual. Dr. Daniel Yohanna, medical director of the Stone Institute of Psychiatry at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said Halloween could actually be a good tonic for children if it gets them away from the constant horror and back to their regular routine.

"I hope we haven't overexposed our children to the horror of the event, because Halloween is part of their play," Yohanna said. "And if they are too horrified to play, then I would have some concern."

Niles resident Tina Nielsen, a mother of three, concurs. Her home is known in its subdivision for elaborate displays, and while she's scaling back, she said it's due to the demands of a 10-month-old infant and a remodeling project, not concern over the holiday's themes. "I still put the decorations out because the kids enjoy that," said Nielsen, who also has children who are 7 and 5. "If we stop doing our normal routine, the kids are just going to have more questions."

Several years ago, Waly Lowry of Libertyville began a huge, patriotic Halloween display in his yard after being inspired by a Day of the Dead exhibit at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Pilsen.

His collection includes 11 homemade skeletons outfitted in American military uniforms -- from the Revolutionary War through Vietnam.

"I always have a very American theme, with lots of flags," he said of his lawn's graveyard scene. "If anything, I'm going to play it up bigger this year. Kids from schools come by to see my exhibit because it's more of a historical thing."

At Siegel's Cottonwood Farm in Crest Hill, however, owner Paul Siegel isn't trying to avoid current events at all as he tinkers with his Stateville Haunted Prison attraction.

"Our prison theme is built around the criminal-justice system with prisoners getting their just rewards," he said. "If we could figure out a way to do that to [a depiction of] Osama bin Laden, we would like to incorporate it."

And, as always, part of the proceeds from Stateville and Siegel's milder Haunted Barn for young children go to charity.

Siegel said $10,000 was raised for a youth organization in Joliet last year. This year, Siegel has invited firefighters from Lockport Township to collect donations for the families of New York firefighters killed in the attacks.

Redmoon Theater's seventh annual All Hallow's Eve celebration in Logan Square may take on a more cathartic air, as it focuses on remembering those who have died during the year.

"[All Hallow's Eve] is a celebration of people who have moved from the material world to the spiritual world," said Jim Lasko, event creative director. "We participate more in that spirit than in the exchange of candy and masks."

The events of Sept. 11 have made Lasko rethink his celebration.

"In large part, it made me think the way we were viewing things is more healthy for our society to communally celebrate life and the passing of life," Lasko said. "There is no way anybody coming . . . to an event that is purporting to discuss death in a communal space isn't going to be away [from] the sweeping death that happened Sept. 11 and know that, in part, this event is meant to recognize that and be an opportunity to heal a little bit."

As part of All Hallow's Eve, community-made shrines for the recently passed will be displayed throughout Chicago, including Logan Square.

"I can imagine that some of those communities will choose to honor the victims of the Sept. 11 attack with those shrines," Lasko said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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