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Halloween Horrors

What happened to Halloween? I mean the Halloween of ghosts and witches, Batman and Robin, devils and fire breathers, and good clean fun? I mean the sense of neighborhood and community, of childhood and innocence, of a special night for kids?

It's been years since the first needles were found in Halloween candies, and we all learned to buy the obsessively packaged stuff and sift through our kids' bags to make sure the treats really were that.

It's been almost as long since I learned to turn off the lights before the truly scary teenagers hit the streets, the ones you'd double-lock the door upon seeing on your front porch any other night of the year, those who couldn't really be looking for the last of the Hershey's kisses.

But I still like the part about little kids, or even medium-sized ones, dressing up in cute costumes, bags in hand, dentists forgotten, if only for one night. As a kid growing up, I had a mother who was crazed on the subject of weight gain. The joke in our family was that we had to hide any candy we had in my father's glove compartment or she'd throw it away in her frenzy to avoid much-hated fat. I won't tell you what a bad strategy that was, but it made Halloween even more special.

From the time I had my first house, I looked forward to the doorbell ringing. When I moved to what was known as a "safe place" to trick-or-treat, I started buying extra candy every year and welcomed with open arms the kids from other parts of town, whose parents brought them by car so they could have the experience of walking down the block without looking over their shoulders, of a holiday spent unafraid, bags open, greeted with smiles.

This year, they didn't come. This year, almost no one came, not to my new neighborhood, which advertises itself as family friendly, and not to my old neighborhood, which used to be the biggest destination for Halloween in my city.

Everyone must be too afraid, my son said to me last night, as we looked at each other over the full bowl of Halloween candy that in past years would not have been enough for the hordes.

Kids go to the mall now.

What are we afraid of? Does terror really lurk behind a neighbor's door? Will a generation grow up to believe there is no such thing as a safe place, a safe night, a safe treat? What does that do to our view of each other?

But that was only the half of it. There were kids I saw in costume this Halloween, and what I saw was even scarier than the empty streets.

I'm talking about the girls dressed like whores, literally, and the boys dressed like gynecologists (I kid you not), about parents who think it is either funny or clever to help their kids dress "up" as pot doctors and even "orgasm donors." (I promised to protect my sources on this one, but believe me; I couldn't make this up.) Sex sickos aren't funny, and sadly, they aren't pretend either. If it's OK to dress up as one, does that mean it's OK to grow up to be one? If you can dress like a pot doc, does that mean you can go to one?

I don't always know what my kids are wearing before they leave the house, but I try. I certainly don't make costumes for them that I'd be embarrassed to read about in my local paper. In one classroom of 14-year-olds that I heard about, it was one of the mothers who took credit for making the lab coats for the sex fiends and the pot doc. Dr. Frankenstein would have been fine. An "orgasm donor" is not fine.

How many times do parents have to be told that their job is to set standards &

not compete with their kids for whose are lowest? How many of us sit by silently, afraid that our own kids will be singled out if we speak up, and let the worst set the standard for the rest of us? And what of the poor teachers who would like to send these kids home, but have lost their authority to enforce decency for kids whose parents have none? Parents don't always know best. Parental autonomy doesn't mean a license to ruin a generation rather than act your age. No wonder we're all so afraid.

Happy Halloween. Bah, humbug.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at .