When 10-year-old Bihh Ly dons her princess gown tonight and steps out into the darkness to go door-to-door in Takoma Park in search of treats, she will carry a flashlight in her pumpkin, and she won't be alone: her parents plan to go with her, she said.
Her friend, Linh Huyhn, said that she, too, will be accompanied by a relative, will take some safety precautions and will forgo a traditional Halloween mask in favor of makeup.
"If you wear a mask you can't see very well," said Huyhn, a third grader with Bihh at Rolling Terrace Elementary School.
As thousands of ghosts, goblins, Hulks and GI Joes sally forth to prowl for goodies on All Hallows Eve, parents, teachers and school officials are warning children about possible dangers ahead, including contaminated candy and heavy traffic.
A national poll by The Washington Post and ABC News shows that, despite fears about trick-or-treat sabotage and some indications from police that Halloween activities have declined, people continue to offer treats at Halloween and children continue to knock on doors to collect them.
Of 1,500 adults questioned nationwide, 69 percent said they would give out treats this Halloween. Of those polled who had children under the age of 15, 60 percent said their children would go trick-or-treating.
But some, less than 2 percent of those surveyed, said they have found their children's Halloween candy to be contaminated. The poll findings suggest that the public is concerned about the safety of their trick-or-treating children.
Washington area police reported scattered incidents of booby-trapped candy last year, including the case of an Annandale woman who cut her hand on a razor blade while sifting her children's treats.
But Fairfax County police spokesman Warren Carmichael said there has not been "any large-scale problem with tampering." Police have often found "the complainant was the person who put the contaminant in the candy," he said.
A California researcher has concluded that the Halloween scare is a largely groundless "urban legend," a much greater threat to community spirit than to the health of children involved. Sociologist Joel Best of California State University at Fresno reports in the November issue of Psychology Today that he found accounts of 76 specific incidents and allusions to hundreds more in nearly three decades of the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Fresno (Calif.) Bee. "Yet a careful reading reveals no deaths or severe injuries caused by Halloween sadists," he said.
Two deaths, including one boy whose father poisoned his candy, were mistakenly attributed to Halloween sadists.
However, police throughout the country say door-to-door activities are still down from previous years. Collections for charities such as UNICEF have suffered at least temporarily, they say, and some communities have shifted to Halloween parties as a substitute for trick-or-treating.
Best said "urban legends" usually spread most rapidly "during a period of intense social strain." Halloween sadism stories gained great currency in the early 1970s, and peaked again during the 1982 Tylenol scare when cyanide found in some store-shelf capsules of the painkiller caused seven deaths.
During Halloween that year newspapers reported brownies in New Hampshire laced with the painkiller Demerol and a caramel apple in North Dakota that contained a pin.
Those reports, confirmed by police, led to dozens of others with less basis in fact. "A child who 'discovers' an adulterated treat stands to be rewarded with the concerned attention of parents and, perhaps, police officers and reporters," Best said. "And, of course, such hoaxes fit the tradition of Halloween trickery."
Best links the phenomenon to growing urban fears of child abuse and drug-related crime. Gerald T. Horiuchi, Best's researcher, said, "I think it's kind of sad; this urban legend has taken a lot out of the tradition."
Some Washington area hospitals have responded to the fears of parents over their children's safety by renewing offers this year to X-ray candy at no charge. For a listing of hospitals and other Halloween information, see the Weekly.
Local police are urging parents to inspect all sweets and to report anything suspicious.
Other safety tips recommended by police:
*Discuss the route children plan to follow and the time they will return.
*Give children flashlights and light-colored trick-or-treat bags to carry, or use a reflective tape on the bags. Costumes should also be light-colored with decals or reflective tape.
*Tell children to stop only at well-lit houses or apartment buildings and not to enter unless an adult is with them and approves.