Vampires, ghosts and things that go bump in the night will be ringing doorbells Wednesday for one of the most magical traditions of the year, the great outdoor costume and candy party.

For a while, the normal world stops. It is cold, dark and windy. Owls screech. Witches fly by on their way some place awful. You straighten your costume, tighten your grip on your paper sack, and march up to the next house. The door creaks open. Instead of your neighbor, a grinning, flapping skeleton greets you. Horrible sounds -- moans, cackles, the swish of bats' wings -- come from inside.

You're not afraid . . . you want cand . . . you're terrified . . . you turn and run to hold your father's hand.

Fears and fantasies: That is Halloween, a festival that has endured for more than 2,000 years, losing most of its superstitious and religious connotations, but retaining its ability to scare the wits out of people and and brighten a sometimes gloomy time of year.

Modern fears have replace ancient ones. Ugly Halloween tricks have made many parents cautious, fearful and restrictive. They worry that the streets are not safe. Halloween has become, sad to say, modern .

"It's more commerical, more organized, more materialistic, and there's more adult involvement now," says Dr. Jerry M. Wiener, chairman of the department of psychiatry at George Washington University.

"It's like the move from playing sandlot ball to Little League. Instead of children's night, Halloween has increasingly become a combination of children and adults."

Wiener, the father of four children, ages 7 through 13, recalls his own Halloweens as safe, happy times when children were on their own.

"Other than admonitions to be careful and be home on time and giving money to buy a mask," parents stayed on the sidelines, handing out appled and popcorn to trick-or-treaters. Now, in some neighborhoods, parents must provide transportation and protection.

"I think it's sad Halloween is not the way it used to be, says Sally Smith, an Arlington mother to two who grew up in Texas. "It reminds me that there's no real sense of community anymore.

"We only trick-or-treat at the houses of people we know.And that kills me that I can't make certain things because I know the mothers throw them away unless they're store-wrapped.

"When we were little, we took trick-or-treating very seriously. We were allowed to sprinkle confetti on people's porches, but not on their grass where it would be hard to get up. The it wasn't just people with children who stayed home for Halloween. Everyone did. It's not public-spirited now. I think they ought to call if off."

Real and imagined fears have affected UNICEF trick-or-treat fundraising for international children's services. Proceeds have fallen from about $75,000 five years ago to about $50,000 last year in the metropolitan area, says Irene Davidson, manager of UNICEF Information Services here.

"Support for UNICEF has not diminished," she says. "It is just not desirable for children to be out on the street collecting money."

UNICEF supporters have taken their fund-raising events indoors and are staging haunted houses, pumpkin-carving and costume contests and other events. (For a small donation to UNICEF, Bloomingdale's stores at Tyson's Corner and White Flint Mall will make up children's faces to go with their costumes, from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesday.)

But whatever its modern-day inadequacies, Halloween is one time for children -- recognized and accepted by the community -- "to act out the illusion of being scary to adulst," says GWU's Wiener, "so long as everyone observes the rules of the game."

For a night, he says, adults forget "reality" and "accept the fact that witches, pirates, goblins and devlis are coming to the door and demanding ransom -- that's the trick-or-treat idea."

All children fear "forces more powerful than themselves." By becoming what they fear -- dressing up in costumes, pretending in games -- they can become what they fear, understand it and master it.

There are, of course, the fearless ones. Such as the 4-year-old who last year was an apple -- a brown sock on one arm was a worm -- and this year will be a peanut-butter sandwich or a pumpkin.

And there are the store-bought costumess. "My kids want them; they spend half-an-hour debating which one to get, deliriously happy," says Barbara Podoff, a Bethesda mother of three.

Commerical masks, often of popular TV monsters, can terrify the littlest trick-or-treaters, who very often can't always distinguish between reality and fantasy.

"For a year after her first Halloween, when she was 2, my daughter called anything she was afraid of a costume because we told her 'it's only a costume' when she saw gorillas and Frankenstein walking down the street," recalls one suburban mother.

There are the hassles: a genuinely scared child, the doorbell-ringing for three hours, missed dinner, too-expensive costumes, running out of goodies at 6:30 or getting stuck with a year's supply of candy corn when no one shows up, a smashed pumpkin, soaped windows, trantrums over the candy.

"At our house,the Halloween rule is, whatever they get, I give them two days to eat. For two days you can't see a Greenstein kid without a piece of candy in her mouth. If they don't finish it, I eat it or throw it out," says Dena Greenstein of Northwest Washington.

Halloween traditions develop in families and neighborhoods: the local school parade, an impromptu block party that continues over the years, a community haunted house and, of course, the pumpkin-carving ritual.

Some adults spend the day in costume.Jen Meek, an Arlington nursery school teacher, is a clown for the day "because it makes the kids laugh -- and the adults, too."

At the home of Paula and David L. Miller in Northwest Washington, many traditions have developed: making popcorn, decorating the front of their colonial home near upper 16th Street with pumpkins, scarecrows and Indian corn, toasting pumpkin seeds and pulling links off a paper chain for each day that passes until Halloween arrives.

The Millers and three other families, who have a total of 14 children, recently joined together to celebrate the Catholic mass in their homes once a month. The first mass of November will focus of All Sanits' Day and the children will dress as saints "to honor those who have done God's will."

"And this will be part of our Halloween," says Mrs. Miller.

And so it goes. Once a celebration of the "lord of the dead," where evil spirits were everywhere, Halloween is now what anyone makes it. For some, it represents a joyful mocking of our fears. We know there are no witches, no ghosts.

Are there?