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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Year of Tamer Tricks, More Treats

LOS ANGELES -- A fire is raging out of control at a crematorium. Firefighters greet people at the door, supposedly to lead them to safety. But along the way, a descent into horror: The firefighters turn into demons and the visitors learn they're being led into hell.

That was the plan, anyway, for this year's haunted house at the Castle Park amusement center in Riverside, California. On the afternoon of Sept. 11, park officials and creative consultants huddled to come up with Plan B.

"It didn't take long to realize that what we were planning would be completely inappropriate,'' said Ed Pearson, general manager at Castle Park.

Halloween has long been the American holiday of terror -- a time to confront fear in a harmless way and stir up the ghosts of our imagination. Once considered a children's holiday, it has grown in recent years to encompass adults as well. It has become a bacchanal, a largely secular celebration in which the national id is allowed to run rampant.

Now, with real horror having trumped fantasy, some people are rethinking the whole idea, at least for the time being.

This could be the year of Halloween Lite.

Costume shops are accentuating the positive, with sales of police and firefighter costumes going through the roof. Some schools are telling students to dress only as positive role models; Osama bin Laden need not apply.

Bakeries report a surge in orders for Halloween-themed cakes as parents scrap trick-or-treating plans for parties at home.

And some haunted houses are less haunted than before. The Spooky House Haunted Theme Park in Woodland Hills redesigned four of about 50 rooms after Sept. 11, to go with "more ghosts and goblins than slasher scenes,'' owner Bob Koritzke said.

Halloween, which lands on Wednesday next week, has always reflected the angst of the moment. An ancient holiday that married pagan tradition to the Christian observance of All Hallows Eve, it once was believed to be an evening when the souls of the dead revisited their homes and witches and goblins took to the land.

In the 1960s, with more Americans worried about crime and urban violence, a new source of terror was added to the mix: the tainted treat. Antisocial saboteurs were said to be planting razor blades in apples and pins in candy. Homemade treats vanished from treat bags, and some communities substituted parades or parties for trick-or-treating.

Such fears appeared to have ebbed in the past few years.

While there's no reason for the terrorist attacks to keep children from knocking on their neighbors' doors, a national climate of fear has persuaded some people to steer clear of strangers this Halloween.

"They'll dress up and they'll have candy I buy them, but no trick-or-treating,'' Jessica Velis said as she helped her two children pick out costumes at a Kmart in Los Angeles. "Normally, we're scared about who gives our kids candy, and we check the candy, but now, with everything that's happened, I don't even want to touch the candy myself.''

But make no mistake: Americans are not foregoing Halloween. Suburban houses are being decorated as usual (although red, white and blue are frequently mixed with the orange and black this year). And spending on the holiday is expected to hit an all-time high of nearly $7 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.