Tricked up
Dave Chamberlain and Frank Sennett watch the lights go out on Halloween

Sidebar: Extreme measures
The list of artists and celebrities at this weekend's Expo of the Extreme

H.P. Lovecraft couldn't have dreamed up a more horrifying Halloween experience than the Expo of the Extreme. The three-day "convention," which bills itself as "The Halloween Hell has been waiting for," brings together an undead army of punk, deathmetal and hardcore bands alongside bondage shows, piercing exhibitions, controversial artists and stars from X-rated films.

If you're looking for slightly tamer chills this weekend, you might want to try the Hades Haunted Houses in west suburban Villa Park that are marketed primarily to adult thrillseekers. Or stay home and watch NBC's "The House of Frankenstein 1997," suggested for mature audiences only. If all else fails, you can head over to the Admiral Theatre, where "big-breasted entertainer" Penelope Pumpkins is currently eliciting jack-o-lantern leers.

Call it official: Grownups have hijacked Halloween.

And it's not just the fact that adults have turned October 31 into one of the year's premier party nights -- we're also killing children's ability to enjoy the holiday, dropping restrictions on them like so many rocks in Charlie Brown's trick-or-treat bag.

While the ghouls over at the Cook County Sheriff's Office were telling parents to "limit your children's 'trick or treat' activities to friends or neighbors you know well" and admonishing them that "'Trick or treating' should take place during daytime hours," the wicked witches over at the American Heart Association of Metropolitan Chicago were showing us how to create a "heart-healthy Halloween" by skipping the sweets and offering "non-food treats such as stickers, crazy pencils, balloons, spider rings, a special trick-or-treat toothbrush, or tube of sparkle-gel toothpaste." Northwest suburban Hawthorn Woods moved the entire holiday, forcing kids to venture out into the high winds last Sunday afternoon to make their candy-grabbing rounds.

What the hell is going on here?

Adults are pursuing more childlike entertainments, for one thing. Once upon a time, kids graduated from board games and kick-the-can to pinball parlors, then moved on to pool halls, drive-ins and bars before settling in to bowling nights, golf outings and poker and bridge parties. But many people in their twenties and thirties, children of the computer revolution, no longer make such distinctions -- video games, escapist movies and interactive entertainment are enduring leisure-time staples. The main attraction at Dave & Buster's, an entertainment complex on Clark Street, is an arcade of dazzling video games surrounding a huge bar. Children are not allowed into this juvenile playground after 10pm -- and they can never come in without an adult chaperone.

It makes sense, then, that increasing numbers of young adults are adopting Halloween as their own. "We work so much now, sixty hours a week," says Hades entrepreneur Joe Jensen. "This is our one chance to have an adult holiday where we have something to do besides going to a movie or out for a drink."

Haunted houses -- along with their summertime counterpart, the Renaissance fairs -- are the granddaddy of interactive entertainments that now include virtual-reality games, audience-as-cast-member theatre productions and theme restaurants such as Medieval Times. And like those diversions, haunted houses are going after the adult market more than ever before. "Video games gave us a better understanding of interactive theatre," Jensen says of today's adults. "As absurd a concept as 'Tony n' Tina's Wedding' is, it's interactive, it changes and people crave the group experience."

That's one of the main reasons Hades attracts up to 80,000 visitors, most of them high-school aged and older, every Halloween season at $16 a pop. And that's also why haunted houses have grown into a $200-million-per-year business nationwide. After a dip in box-office receipts three years ago, Hades' revenues have been growing steadily, Jensen says, thanks to intense marketing to adults.

"There are just fewer kids right now," he says. "That's going to turn around in a few years, but we're at the bottom of the trough. If a haunted house is to exist, you have to appeal to older people. And let's face it, this has always been an adult holiday, a time when people can go 'What if?' Cross-dressing might be taboo the rest of the year, but at Halloween it's acceptable. Halloween is a time to have an adventure, relive that coming-of-age experience."

Jensen and business partner Sharon Marzano have been at the haunted-house game for nineteen years, after doing a lot of interactive theatre at Western Illinois University. And while this year's edition of Hades -- two houses called "Ancient Evil" and "War of the Worlds" set up in a small convention hall -- isn't nearly as scary as Jensen's practiced hype would have you believe, his observations about why adults have elevated Halloween to major shindig status ring as true as the bells on a court jester's hat. Why, even slasher movies are coming back -- after Hollywood left it for dead in the first half of the nineties, the genre roared back to life with last year's "Scream." The current horror hit "I Know What You Did Last Summer," the nation's highest-grossing film for the past two weeks, is cutting through the lingering doubts of producers like a chainsaw through virgin flesh.

But the more enduring trend may be the limiting of kid activities on Halloween. Our last truly communal holiday, Halloween is an anachronism in a society increasingly willing to trade wide-open spaces for cyberspace. Parents are rightfully concerned about the safety of their kids on nighttime city streets among neighbors they've never even wanted to meet. Besides, candy is fattening and dressing up like a bum really does seem offensive when you consider the guy who lives in the vestibule of your apartment building every night until the armed guard boots him out. But you'd like to think that some vestige of Halloween fun might remain for tomorrow's urchins, perhaps in the still-communal atmosphere of school. In this get-tough era of standards-based reform and increasingly assertive parents, however, many kids don't even get to dress up for the Halloween assembly anymore.

"It's one issue that's come up frequently, especially in recent years, in public-school conflicts," says Charles C. Haynes, scholar-in-residence at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. Speaking from his office in Memphis, Tennessee, Haynes says conservative Christians began attacking Halloween celebrations in public schools with regularity a few years ago to get back at moves to limit celebrations of Christmas and Easter in the schools. But even though some of the initial attacks on Halloween were driven by spite, many Christian parents actually began to find the school activities offensive once they examined them more closely.

"Many of the parents feel that religion is treated with hostility in public schools," Haynes says, "So they said, 'If we can't have Christmas, you can't promote Halloween with witches and ghosts.' And there has been a broader change in the culture from when many of us were kids -- Halloween has been co-opted to an extent by groups of Wiccans who emphasize its religious origins, and it's also associated more with extreme violence through slasher movies. There are also some groups of kids who use Halloween to push buttons with parents by employing Satanic imagery and animal mutilation."

The First Amendment Center, a religion-focused offshoot of the Freedom Forum's (formerly called the Gannett Foundation) efforts to promote press rights, steers a middle ground between religious activists who want public schools to go back to creation science and mangers at Christmas, and civil liberties groups that go to court whenever they catch the slightest whiff of religion in classrooms.

"First Amendment principles don't have to be about litigation," says Haynes, who has been studying religion and schools for a dozen years. "We try to promote a civil debate that brings us together."

So when Haynes hears complaints about Halloween from parents and education officials during the many religion-in-schools conferences the center holds around the nation each year, he tries to forge a middle-ground solution.

"It used to be we got few, if any, questions about Halloween," he says. "Now we always get them. Halloween has become a symbol of what some parents don't like about their schools. When some districts get complaints, they do away with everything," says Haynes, who does not recommend such a move because "many other parents wanted their kids to have a fun-filled Halloween and didn't know they cared until it was taken away."

On the other end of the spectrum, Haynes cites the California school-district superintendent who refused to do away with Halloween parties and parades, saying that complaining parents "were kind of loony."

Rather than "lose parents over something silly" by going to either extreme, Haynes counsels schools to make all Halloween decisions only when the last pumpkin is composted after the current celebration. With the pressure off, it's then easier to reach some kind of compromise -- putting parents in charge of an after-school celebration that can be held in the cafeteria, for instance, or limiting the festivities to one class day that kids can opt out of if their parents are opposed to the holiday. He adds that a growing number of schools are switching from Halloween celebrations to units on the fall harvest that allow kids to dress up in the farmer garb of different cultures.

This, of course, sounds like a delightful solution to a reasonable adult. But to a kid used to dressing up as The Tick and toilet-papering the teacher's lounge, it's nothing but watery creamed spinach.

Haynes doesn't care. "Holiday-driven curriculum is a frivolous thing," he says. "It's not substantive learning, and it impoverishes kids' education." The magic of Halloween, he contends, "is served in other ways. If it's not in school, they'll be trick-or-treating in the malls. If there are going to be fun things in schools, find ways to relate it substantively to the curriculum. Frankly, the pendulum has swung too far in terms of 'Kids should have fun.' I think there's a happy medium." And he doesn't mean a kid frolicking through the halls in a gypsy costume.

In Chicago, as in most big cities, Halloween hasn't yet become a divisive issue. "We really don't get any complaints," says Miguel A. Rodriguez, a supervising attorney in the Department of Education's Law Department. "If anything, it's seen as a cultural celebration. We don't see it as a religious celebration, because it is not."

However, Rodriguez says he recently talked to two parents who are upset by the Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, observations at a few public schools with predominantly Hispanic enrollments. "Some of them say the exhibits are too frightening for their kids," Rodriguez says. "But they can opt out of the celebration by bringing a note to their teacher."

That's right, kids -- keep opting out.

This holiday is ours now.


Copyright 1997 New City Communications, Inc.