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Unmasking Halloween's True Spirit

AROUND THE VALLEY

November 04, 1996|SANDY BANKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sugar high has almost worn off in my house, and the Halloween costumes have been washed and put away for another year.

I tossed the decaying jack-o'-lanterns in the trash last night, and today the kids and I will finally take down the fake spider webs that drape our front porch.

By tonight, our home, and our Northridge neighborhood, will be back to normal. No more cardboard skeletons, which fluttered for weeks from our neighbor's eaves, or garish pumpkin lights, bathing our lawns with an eerie orange glow.

Though Halloween lasted for only one night, it's a Halloween season we celebrate these days--a tribute to the resiliency of a holiday that refused to succumb to parental fears about poisoned sweets and needle-laden apples.

Now, after years of X-raying candy bars and restricting our children's trick-or-treat adventures to the safe confines of busy shopping malls, the old-fashioned Halloween--at least in my neighborhood, in my little patch of the Valley--is back.

*

For years it seemed the Halloween we knew as children had been vanquished by real-life ghouls. Rumors of candy tampering--widely circulated in the early 1980s--sent parents searching for alternatives to a "trick or treat" tradition that seemed freighted with peril.

I think back 14 years to that first Halloween in the first house my husband and I owned, a tiny Van Nuys bungalow. We stocked up on candy, turned on our porch light and waited eagerly for the doorbell to ring. Hours later, we forlornly packed the goodies away, having given out only three candy bars the entire night.

Every year we'd repeat the ritual--first in Van Nuys, then in our new home at the end of a Northridge cul-de-sac teeming with kids. But for years, the line of trick-or-treaters making their way to our front door was painfully thin.

Most families, it seemed, were opting for the security of organized activities, sponsored by local malls, parks and churches. There were parties and costume contests, Halloween parades and prize giveaways. Accepting a treat from a stranger meant, at least, a rigorous inspection and at most, a trip to the hospital for a candy X-ray.

We held the line against that in my home. I can't find it in me to tell my children: "Have fun trick-or-treating" and "Don't eat your candy until it's X-rayed" in the same breath. So we took to the streets year after year, even when it seemed we were out there alone.

But slowly, change has come. The trick-or-treaters have returned.

This year, mobs of costumed children commandeered the streets in my neighborhood. They rushed past one another, yelling to announce which houses had the scariest displays and which could be skipped because "that lady's only giving out colored pens!" Parents stood guard on the sidewalk while their children tromped up walkways and across lawns to pound on strangers' doors and demand candy.

It was a perfect Halloween night, cold and clear. The pungent smell of burnt pumpkins from hundreds of candle-lit jack-o'-lanterns permeated the air. Neighbors who hardly saw one another anymore stopped to exchange greetings and share family news--their conversations punctuated by familiar parental refrains.

"Are you sure you're not too cold without your sweater?"

"I didn't hear you say 'thank you' at that house!"

*

I do not delude myself that children everywhere in this city enjoy such freedom as my daughters, to enjoy the kind of carefree Halloween that their parents recall.

In the Pico-Union area near downtown Los Angeles, police passed out candy and sponsored a haunted house last week because it is too dangerous there to send children door-to-door.

And while I was putting the finishing touches on my daughter's costume on Halloween morning, two Pasadena mothers were weeping in a downtown courtroom, as a jury recommended the death penalty for the men who killed their teenage sons in a Halloween ambush three years ago.

Their children were returning from a birthday party, wearing costumes and carrying trick-or-treat bags full of candy that they couldn't eat "until Mommy checked it," one mother recalled. They and a friend were gunned down in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood by three gang members who mistook the youngsters for rivals.

For their families and their neighbors, Halloween will always be about dangerous streets and deadly horrors. And all over the city--the Valley included--some families still go to extraordinary lengths to protect their children.

Although there has never been a confirmed report of a child being seriously injured here by tainted candy--and indeed almost every report nationwide has turned out to be a hoax--local hospitals still offer to X-ray treats. At Valley hospitals this year, only a handful of families showed up.

*

In some ways, our children are luckier than we were. Halloween has become big business, thanks in part to the alternate reality we tried to construct when fear of trick-or-treating kept our children off the streets.

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