Local Dispatch: Here's hoping that a few chills creep into this Halloween

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A few Halloweens ago, I exited a store in the Squirrel Hill business district to find that the "safe trick-or-treating" had begun, with merchants along the busy main streets distributing candy.

As a lifelong Squirrel Hill resident, it was inspiring to see the business district so alive. I have seen similar throngs of miniature witches, princesses and superheroes at area outdoor malls during daylight hours. It's wonderful that the businesses generously distribute candy and parents can feel comfortable.

Yet, this type of Halloween celebration saddens me, too.

When I was a child, Halloween was about more than just getting candy (although that was a huge part of it). It was one night when -- once I had reached a reasonable age -- I could walk after dark with a friend. Back then, Daylight Savings Time ended earlier, so for the entire trick-or-treating period, only the street lights and the headlights of passing cars lit our way.

I enjoyed smelling autumn's buckeyes and their semi-rotting casings and hearing the brittle crunch as I kicked dried leaves under my feet. It was a challenge to avoid treading on the stinking ginkgo fruit that fouled my neighbors' sidewalks.

I eagerly anticipated neighbors' reactions upon seeing me in costume and wondered if they'd even recognize me. I also enjoyed seeing others I knew in their various outfits.

One year, a neighbor and his son both dressed as rabbits. I thought it was funny to see an adult in costume. The next year, when I saw this same neighbor's quite colorful pants, I asked if he was a clown. I still taste the remains of shoe leather as I recall his response: "No, these are just my fancy pants."

Some neighbors put thought into making trick-or-treating an unusual experience. One neighbor dressed as a witch and invited us in to eat a snack in her cozy living room. Another year, a neighbor greeted kids at the door with a vacuum cleaner roaring behind him, swinging the hose and threatening to sweep children up.

When I went to my friend Lisa's neighborhood, Shadyside, we visited what has since become The Mansion at Maple Heights, a bed and breakfast facility. It was the perfect Halloween spot -- an eerie mansion at the end of a long, dark road. Had the guy with the vacuum cleaner lived there, I would've thought twice about going. At that time, however, the woman who lived there would invite us in for delicious homemade donuts.

The variety of goodies from the different homes made for an interesting study at the end of the night. The evening's loot wasn't solely tiny "fun size" candy. Some people gave full-sized candy bars. (Score!) Some gave popcorn balls. Some put baked goods in plastic sandwich bags. Some gave real coins.

I would return home, simultaneously exhausted and excited, dump my pile of treasure on the living room floor, count it, and sort it into like categories.

Much as I support the efforts of merchants who provide a safer Halloween experience for children, I mourn the loss of the more mysterious, more diverse and more creepy Halloween I knew. In recent years, there have been very few trick-or-treaters in many residential areas of Squirrel Hill, and I'm sure in other neighborhoods, as well. That can mean lots of treats showing up at workplaces the next day to get the calories out of the house.

I know from being a teacher, however, that children are just as excited about Halloween as I was when I was a child. They talk about what they're "going to be" for months beforehand.

The kids will probably still have a blast, whether they trick-or-treat in bright daylight or at night -- or whether at their neighbors' houses or at a mall. They'll still count their candy and get sugar rushes.

I just hope that at some point along the way, they can see the face of a jack-o'-lantern glowing after dark or experience even just a slight shiver of creepiness.

Laura Lind, a music teacher, can be reached at beedy@hotmail.com.

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