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Halloween activities address adult fears, too

Police departments issue safety tips. Churches bill "trunk-or-treat" events as "safe" ways to enjoy the holiday. A chain of medical clinics in the region offers to X-ray children's candy.

Halloween is the night each year when children thrill to the spookier dimensions of life. But a combination of real hazards and urban legends has made the holiday scary for adults as well.

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Sociologists say there's good reason for trepidation — children are especially susceptible to pedestrian accidents, for instance — but such concerns fall short of explaining the level of anxiety society has developed around All Hallow's Eve.

"Is Halloween dangerous? Yes, but because kids are out in the dark," says Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware. "Research tells us there's almost no chance a stranger is going to poison children's candy or slip in something dangerous.

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"But Halloween is a time for us all to take our diffuse fears, get them out in the open and deal with them. Kids are our piece of the future. If we have unacknowledged fears about that future, it makes sense that we would focus them on our kids. After that one day a year is over, we can put them to rest for a while."

Best has studied the reputed dangers of Halloween for more than 30 years.

Reports of malefactors slipping razor blades into children's apples or otherwise sabotaging Halloween treats have persisted across the United States since the late 1960s, Best says. Rumors have proliferated at times of national crisis, as they did during the Halloween that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But Best — who conducts his research by scouring newspapers coast to coast every year — says he has never seen a report of such an injury, let alone a death.

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Not that getting the facts in the public eye changes everyone's mind.

"In 1985, Jane Pauley interviewed me on [this subject] on the 'Today' show. I told her everything I had learned. At the end of the conversation, she said, 'That's interesting, but I'm still going to check my kids' candy.'"

It has become routine in Maryland for police departments to scrutinize their community's sex offender registry and remind those on the list that they're legally barred from taking part in trick-or-treat activities.

Police and fire departments, schools and local governments have long published and disseminated safety tips for Halloween.

This year, the Howard County Department of Police issued a statement encouraging children to "trick-or-treat with a group, and before dark," to wear flame-retardant costumes — and short ones, to minimize tripping — and to avoid shortcuts through backyards, alleys or playing fields.

The nonprofit Safe Kids Baltimore urged parents to decorate children's costumes and bags with reflective tape or stickers and to "remind children to eat only treats in original, unopened wrappers."

And a group called Towson Citizens on Patrol plans to be out in force Friday night to "deter pranksters and troublemakers" on the evening they refer to as "Mischief Night," a tradition they've carried on every year since 2000.

They're inviting members of the public to bring hats, gloves and scarves to donate to a local family crisis center during an evening of light refreshments at the Baltimore County Police Hillendale Resource Center on Taylor Avenue.

In Harford County, revelers were invited to trick-or-treat at downtown businesses for two hours last Saturday, and 15 trick-or-treat stations will be available for children at the Bel Air Farmers' Market at South Bond and Thomas streets on Saturday afternoon.

It's all in an effort to offer trick-or-treaters safe locations for carrying out the time-honored tradition — a mission Best and others who study Halloween fully support.

"Parents are trying to figure out an answer to the question, 'Should I be worried [on Halloween]?'" says Jerome Schultz, a lecturer on psychology at Harvard Medical School. "The answer is: You should be careful, but you shouldn't be worried. Take appropriate measures to ensure safety, but don't take away your children's opportunity to get dressed up, to act silly … and to get a little scared. Knowing what it's like to be scared, and to be able to laugh about it, is a good lesson in life."

That approach has inspired a variety of events that preserve Halloween's thrills while reducing its perceived risks.

Venues such as the Shops at Kenilworth mall in Towson have long offered costume parades for children, for example, and recent years have seen the development of another relatively new custom.

Trunk-or-treating involves parents decorating their cars, lining them up in a school or church parking lot, and handing out candy from the trunks. It has gained popularity as an alternative to letting children walk neighborhoods at night.

Ben and Chris Kuchta, ages 5 and 8, are planning to don their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Minion costumes and collect massive amounts of candy this weekend. But they'll get most of their haul going car-to-car at school.

Their mother, Liz Kuchta, organized the fourth annual Trunk-or-Treat event at Our Lady of Grace School in Parkton, where the boys are in kindergarten and second grade.

They'll trick-or-treat on Halloween evening, their mother says, but Friday's event is a chance to get dressed up and collect candy with their school friends, many of whom don't live near them in rural Baltimore County.

"I don't worry about my kids going out trick-or-treating, because I go out with them," Kuchta says. "It's more about being together as a community. They want to be with their friends, show each other their costumes."

Harvester Baptist Church in Ellicott City and Second Presbyterian Church in Baltimore are also planning trunk-or-treat events Saturday.

Joanna Warren, organizer of the Harvester event, says last year's outing featured one gray car festooned as a shark and another as Jonah's whale. But because plenty of toddlers tend to visit, those were about as frightening as it got.

What's scarier, she says, is that we live in a day and age when fewer people than ever know their own neighbors, a fact that makes it harder for parents to be trusting this time of year.

"It's only natural; you really don't want your children taking candy from strangers," she says.

The afternoon event also makes for effective outreach into the community, she adds.

Even at Patient First, a chain of walk-in medical centers with several clinics in the greater Baltimore area, the staff is mixing a safety mission with a message of fun.

Every Halloween since the early 1990s, the company has invited parents to bring their children in, free of charge, to get their candy X-rayed.

Spokesman Ian Slinkman says he knows of no instance in which an X-ray turned up anything irregular, but it puts parents' minds at ease.

It's also fun for the kids to see X-rays of their apples, Jujubes and Snickers bars, he says — a surprise that, if nothing else, makes them laugh and gives them an enjoyable experience at the clinic that could help comfort them should they ever need to return for a more serious reason.

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People can walk into any Patient First clinic between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday for the free service, Slinkman said.

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Best says such precautions are hardly necessary, as history has shown virtually no American adult to be the kind of Halloween hobgoblin rampant in urban legend.

But he doesn't blame parents for taking precautions. He just asks that they try their best not to put a damper on their children's fun.

"Warning kids that someone in the neighborhood wants to harm them doesn't strike me as a great idea," he says. "If you want to check the candy, fine. I don't think you're going to find a thing."

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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