When you dress your toddler like a Power Ranger tonight and take him trolling for candy, the nation's culture wars likely will be far from your mind. But for a growing number of Americans, celebrating Halloween has become taboo.
Sheila Nazario is one of them. The 35-year-old from Plainfield, N.J., won't take her 3-year-old trick-or-treating or even put him in a costume. She celebrated Halloween as a child, but rejected the holiday later in life when she became an evangelical Christian and Oct. 31 seemed to take on a more menacing tone.
"It was something God wanted me to do," she said. "Halloween represents a pagan holiday to us. When I was younger, Halloween wasn't safe but a bit safer. People use it now as a way to do things that aren't nice."
Across the country, parents like Nazario are "opting out" of Halloween celebrations in schools and communities because they see the holiday as a glorification of paganism and out of step with their values.
It's not just evangelical Christians, either. Some Jewish parents reject Halloween because of the holiday's pagan and Christian roots and instead celebrate Purim, a Jewish festival involving costumes and candy that started on March 17 this year. Conservative Muslim parents also opt out of Halloween because the Koran forbids celebration of non-Muslim holidays.
By no means is Halloween in danger of extinction, of course. Halloween is the No. 2 holiday, behind Christmas, in terms of dollars spent, with Americans pouring an anticipated $6.9 billion into costumes, candy and other holiday paraphernalia this year.
"It's been stoked up as a controversial holiday, but for the general population, it's really fun as usual," said Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.
You Say Halloween, We Say Samhain
Amid the costumes and candy, though, Halloween has become a lightning rod for recent debate over the role of religion in public life. School districts are being forced to deal with how they celebrate the occasion, and communities are offering more alternatives to trick-or-treating.
Halloween's roots go back millenniums and stem from both pagan and Christian traditions. The Celtic festival Samhain was an ancient tradition commemorating the dead. In the eighth century, the Christian Feast of All Saints was moved to Nov. 1, making Oct. 31 "All Hallows Eve," or "Halloween."
But the holiday became politically and culturally charged in the last few decades, Rogers said.
To the dismay of evangelical Christians, many gay communities adopted Halloween as a special night for celebration, sponsoring parades and parties before gay pride events became more common, Rogers said. The nation's largest Halloween parade, in New York City's Greenwich Village, is expected to attract 2 million attendees this year.
Urban legends about violence on Oct. 31 also ran rampant in the 1970s and '80s, fueled by stories of sharp objects lodged in apples and candy. For the record, sociologist Joel Best studied Halloween crimes since 1958 and found that no children were ever critically injured from tampered candy, although cases of tampering have occurred.
Adding to the fear of Halloween violence were stories about out-of-hand Devil's Night in Detroit, full of inner-city mayhem and arson. And gory horror films such as Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street became more commonly associated with the holiday.