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Child safety is the real scare of this Halloween

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times
published October 26, 2002

Halloween is next week, and I can't say I'm really looking forward to it. I don't have any kids at home, and where we live now we're not likely to get trick or treaters, so the holiday doesn't really affect me directly at all. But I overheard a woman at the gym ask another if she was taking her trick-or-treat-age kid out, and she said she was taking him to Davis Islands. I guess that's one place that seems safe now.

If any place is safe. Halloween has gotten, shall we say, creepy -- and not in the way it used to be.

It used to be on Halloween you were supposed to feel scared, but not really scared. Kids and a few overzealous grownups dressed up like scary figures -- witches, monsters, ghosts -- but we kids knew that, really, there was nothing at all scary about walking around our own neighborhoods at night in the dark by ourselves, ringing people's doorbells and begging for candy. There was nothing to fear -- not in the other people on the streets on Halloween night, not in the people who answered their doorbells and certainly not in the candy.

Now we fear all three.

When my daughter was a trick or treater, we lived in a neighborhood in St. Petersburg that was somewhat protected -- a section of one-block residential streets bordered by a major street on one side and the water on the other. We didn't know everyone who lived there, but we felt confident enough that they weren't out to maim or poison little kids. So my daughter and the kids next door went out doing the old-fashioned trick or treating house to house. One big house on the water was situated among lots of trees and foliage -- the neighborhood is called the Jungle -- and the people who lived there put on their portable record player (this was 20 years ago), an LP of scary Halloween sounds, and hung ghosts from the trees. It was wonderfully creepy.

The only thing different from my childhood Halloween was we, the parents, went with the kids.

Until last year, I lived for 10 years on a street in South Tampa that was the picture of a street in an old-fashioned town with 1920s-era houses with big front porches. Many of the owners put out the requisite carved pumpkin and left the lights blazing, signifying they were ready for trick or treaters.

It was fun to see the neighborhood kids come running up the steps year after year, their parents waiting a few paces back on the sidewalk. But it wasn't just neighborhood kids. The word was out, apparently, that our block was a good one, hospitable to trick or treaters. Parents drove slowly down the street in their cars as they kids went from house to house, kids from some other part of town where, presumably, it's not so safe to trick or treat.

Every year I would hear from people around town that there were fewer and fewer trick or treaters in their neighborhoods.

Some parents I knew sent their children -- or even went with them -- to trick or treat in broad daylight at the stores in Old Hyde Park Village. It used to seem so sad to me to see little costumed kids trick or treating in the fragrance department at Jacobson's.

Others took the kids out to the malls or the big public Halloween parties that started turning up when the outside world got too scary.

Last year, of course, it was worse. Not even two months past 9/11 with warnings of fresh terrorism on a holiday where the fear is not supposed to be real, parents just wished Halloween would go away.

This year, it's baaack. In a time when kids know all about serial snipers and suicide bombers and people leaping out of very tall blazing buildings, it's a wonder kids even want to be scared anymore.

And besides getting the costumes ready, parents have to do in a more conscious way what they do every day of their child's life -- decide what is and what is not dangerous for them.

We have come to accept that, well, maybe trick or treating in our own neighborhoods after dark, among people we should know, is not safe.

That could be the scariest thing of all.

-- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.

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