Halloween has morphed into a gore fest that has kids as young as 6 unleashing their inner monsters in ultraviolent costumes — blood-smeared chain saws and spiked killing gloves sold separately.
Options include Leatherface ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre"), Jason ("Friday the 13th"), Freddy ("A Nightmare on Elm Street") and Michael ("Halloween"). Costume sizes can run so small that many wearers are too young to have seen the slasher movies under film industry guidelines.
Fanged creatures feasting on brainstems. Possessed babies chomping on arms. Not all parents think it's OK for the holiday second only to Christmas in the minds of many kids to be more a celebration of the most deranged characters pop culture has to offer.
"Bloody, sadistic, nightmare-inducing Halloween costumes are indeed being made and marketed for kids, and no one seems to care," said Joel Schwartzberg, a parenting writer and Montclair, N.J., dad of a 10-year-old boy and twin 7-year-old girls.
Schwartz- berg is fighting back by trying to raise awareness at tooscarycostumes. com. He said Halloween has strayed from "sickly sweet to just plain sick." No puritan, he said he loves a good horror flick and even has written some, but what's the point of realistic gore for kids?
"I think wearing these costumes and being exposed to human depravity, even in a 'fun' context, doesn't scar kids so much as desensitize them to brutal violence," he said. "Kids are less able to distinguish between real world and fictional brutality than grown-ups."
But it's Halloween, costume makers and other parents argue, urging the bothered among them to exercise the privilege of saying "no" to violent, realistic gore.
Meilynne McKenzie, who started the MOMS Clubs in the Modesto area, is in her first year as children's ministry director for Modesto Covenant Church, which draws 700 children and parents each year to its Fall Fun Fair, an alternative Halloween event. Scary costumes aren't welcome, she said, but that's never a problem.
"There are so many choices, it's not necessary to choose something really scary and gory and horrible," she said.
When her three girls, ages 14, 12 and 10, were younger, she would take them trick-or-treating. Once, when her oldest two were 4 and 2, they rang the doorbell at a house that wasn't decked out in scary Halloween décor. But the man who opened the door was dressed as a deranged butcher.
"He had a (fake) chopped-off arm and blood everywhere. It really scared my daughter," McKenzie said. "It's not necessary to expose children to those images when they're so little. Some children have vivid imaginations. They can have bad dreams, even if they know those images aren't real."
That's why she favors nonscary costumes and alternative events such as the fun fair.
"The trick-or-treating is all about the candy," she said. "What I've always said to kids who want to come to this event is you'll get just as much candy, but in addition to that, there's a lot of fun events you can do. You can still wear costumes but have games and great prizes. Entire families can come and enjoy a safe place. It just feels good to be around people who are also enjoying the evening together."
Dana Walters, co-owner of Modesto's Daydreams & Nightmares costume store, leaves most costume choices up to her three children. Her daughter Jaidon, 7, will be a vampire this year, complete with custom-molded teeth. Sister Jade, 10, will wear a butterfly fairy costume. Jose, 8, will be a dark knight with a cloak and black mask.
"He just wanted to do it because it's dark and scary," Walters said.
Drawing the line
But Walters, whose online name is "gorekween" and who collects dolls from all the horror films, said she doesn't let her children wear anything with blood and gore. Nor does she let her children see the scary movies she enjoys.
"There's enough violence in this day," she said. "I don't think they need to be watching that at their age. I try to teach them (about costumes), 'Remember this is all fake.' I've heard of other shops doing Michael Jackson in a body bag with the glove hanging out. I think that's horrible.
"I had a parent call a few minutes ago for a Freddy Krueger for a 7-year-old. For me, I wouldn't want that for my child until maybe he's a teenager. I'm OK with ghost stories, but not with blood and guts or slashers."
Lori Liddle, a former executive for American Girl and Lands' End, said the make-believe factor is key for families at Halloween.
"While Halloween has its roots in scary, it really is about dress-up and imagination," she said. "At the end of the day, kids really don't want to be scared."
At Ragamuffin in Modesto's McHenry Village, co-owner Maggie Zeff showed infant to toddler costumes that were similarly whimsical and friendly — a pink dog, frog, tiger and pumpkin outfits. For children up to age 12, there are princess dresses, ballerina tutus, wings, crowns, fireman slickers with boots, and similar outfits that can make "great costumes and make-believe clothes."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.