For years, the Knode family had between 15 and 20 trick-or-treaters at their Hilton Avenue house in Catonsville.
Five years ago, inspired by a haunted barn he had made as a child, Emory Knode decided to ramp up the Halloween experience.
With his son Chris, now 21, Knode set up a spooky, interactive Halloween experience across his front lawn, complete with strobe lights, jumping spiders, robotic characters and inflatables, skeletons, snakes, ghosts and ghouls.
That year, more than 200 trick-or-treaters rapped their musical gargoyle door knocker. They almost ran out of candy.
The decorations have grown every year. Next week, trick-or-treaters will walk through a haunted trail covered in spider webs, an alley of talking ghosts and goblins, and under a homemade sign, “Hilton Cemetery,” that weighs more than 150 pounds.
“We just couldn’t stop ourselves,” said Knode, 59. The family spends about 50 hours and “a couple hundred dollars” on the displays, his son said.
Halloween is booming nationwide. A National Retail Federation report said consumers are expected to spend a record $9.1 billion on costumes, decorations and candy this year, up from $8.4 billion last year. The average household is expected to spend around $86 on Halloween.
More than 70 percent of Americans are expected to celebrate Halloween this year — an 18 percentage point increase since 2005, the retail group said.
As its popularity has increased nationally, Halloween in the area has seen changes in recent years — from “Trunk-or-Treat” events, in which parents gather in a parking lot and give candy from decorated car trunks, to adult Halloween parties with dancing and drinking in places including Heavy Seas Brewery in Halethorpe and Fish Head Cantina in Arbutus.
In pockets of Catonsville and Arbutus, a small-town, family feel remains, residents say.
Some neighborhoods maintain old traditions; others reinvent them.
Holding onto tradition
In Baltimore Highlands, Stacy Owens has led a group of volunteers for 24 years in covering Southwest Area Park with ghouls, ghosts and glow sticks.
The Haunted Hallows, a 31-year-old tradition, brings generations together as they put together the haunted trail, held the third weekend in October every year, Owens said. Parents, she said, build props or work concessions; children can help and act in scenes along the trail.
Some volunteers, Owens said, have been with her since the beginning, often bringing their children to help.
“There’s not a whole lot that you can get your whole family involved in, and this is one of those things,” Owens said.
Neighbors, Owens said, stand guard over the haunted trail, camping out overnight and taking turns patrolling to make sure nothing is stolen.
“This is like a giant family,” Owens said. “If I drop dead tomorrow, this thing will go on for the next 30 years,” Owens said.
Nick Stewart, a school board member with two children, described Halloween as a “big block party” in his Arbutus neighborhood, which he said is “still small town America."
Arbutus residents, he said, throw themselves into decorating, while parents gather to grill and drink apple cider before accompanying their children on rounds.
“As parents, we get to live a little of our own childhood through the eyes of our children,” Stewart said. “It feels kind of otherworldly. You can kind of be who you want to be, and have some fun with it.”
For years, parents across the country have worried that trick-or-treating is unsafe — sociologists Joel Best and Gerold Horiuchi noted in 1985 that reports about poison and razor blades tainting Halloween candy go back to at least the 1960s.
As a result of those concerns, “Trunk-or-Treat” events have become more popular in recent years.
Sally Grace, owner of Peace a Pizza, said her Catonsville restaurant held a trunk-or-treat event on Oct. 9 that attracted 200 children, who received candy from 20 cars.
Grace said the event offers families a safe environment and that she heard some parents saying it was their first time letting their children trick-or-treat.
Arbutus Elementary School will hold its fourth trunk-or-treat this year. Krista Wallman, its organizer, said for most of their students, the event will not replace trick-or-treating on Halloween night — it will just extend the festivities.
When Heather Quick moved to Oella three years ago, she and other newly arrived young parents decided to bring trick-or-treating back to the neighborhood.
Many of the older residents were retirees, with children who had grown up and moved out long ago. The few families with children, she said, went to friends’ houses outside the neighborhood for Halloween.
So young parents went from door-to-door, Quick said, leaving notes and telling people to stock up on candy.
Today, Quick said, neighbors are not only excited to answer the door for trick-or-treaters, but often pitch in, helping kids with decorations.
"The older people in our neighborhood got to have some children in their life,” Quick said.
Around Halloween, Quick also invites families to a fall block party, which she said she started to get to know the neighbors.
Parents bring food to Quick’s yard for a potluck while children dress in costumes and play games, Quick said. One neighbor attaches a trailer to a lawn tractor and gives the kids hay rides. When it gets dark, they roast apples and marshmallows over a fire.
“It’s a good old-fashioned Halloween from when we were children,” said Allison Smith, an Oella resident with three children.
"Halloween is one of the reasons why I never wanna leave this town,” Smith said. "It’s so easy, it’s so positive."
Spooking the neighbors
In Catonsville, Chris Knode said, he and his father sometimes go a little overboard with the fog machine — seeing what looked like smoke, the fire department has come by twice.
Going all out for Halloween comes naturally to the family. The younger Knode said his father “has been a prankster since he was a little kid."
Emory, who has run the Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe on Frederick Road since inheriting it from his father in 1980, said he likes to scare customers. Knode’s shop has a box labeled “free guitar picks” with a fake spider inside, which he described as “more bang for my buck than I’ve ever spent.”
The Knodes bring that love of “getting the blood pumping” to their Halloween decor.
Chris Knode said that apart from their home, the rest of their street is “pretty quiet” on Halloween — but that neighbors tell them they appreciate the decor.
“People wave, say hello, say what a good job we do,” Knode said. “It’s a community thing.”
Knode added that they expect new neighbors to move in across the street soon, joking: “They have no idea what they’re getting into.”
Some children love the haunted yard, Chris said, and give their best witch laugh as they collect their candy.
Other kids are spooked — but the Knodes never tone down the scares. “That would be breaking the rules,” Knode said.
“I’ve always had an affinity to scare the crap out of people,” the elder Knode said with a grin.