Condemning Halloween as a celebration of the satanic, parents in Frederick County last year persuaded school officials to replace the annual parade of witches, spooks and goblins with a National Book Week event, featuring nothing more chilling than "storybook characters."
This year, some Howard County school officials -- spooked by the prospect of a similar controversy -- are pushing for a kinder, gentler Halloween. But some parents say the reaction has been an overreaction.
"They don't like the idea that the school can suggest what their kids wear, can intrude on these old customs," said Melodi Smith, president of the PTA at Dasher Green Elementary School in Columbia, who supports restricting the kinds of costumes worn to school for Halloween festivities.
"I'm asking them to think about good, creative costumes that reflect fun kinds of things, not representing evil and bad things," said Anthony Yount, principal of Thunder Hill Elementary School.
At Dasher Green, Principal Philip Arbaugh has asked parents in a newsletter to avoid "costumes that portray witches, goblins, satans, etc." Yount has asked Thunder Hill's parents and children to refrain from selecting "costumes of the supernatural or the occult."
With the Halloween question developing into a minor controversy, both principals said their comments are only recommendations and do not constitute a ban on certain costumes. Arbaugh said he has not received any complaints but is trying to head them off.
"I'm not on one side or the other," Arbaugh said. "I'm just trying to prevent us from losing the holiday altogether."
It's a controversy that is bedeviling school officials all over the region.
For example, at Middleton Valley Academy in Temple Hills, in Prince George's County, teachers have begun encouraging students to be creative with their costumes, instead of portraying, say, Freddie Krueger, the slash-prone ghoul of the movie "A Nightmare on Elm Street."
In 1983, a small group of Fairfax County parents who identified themselves as "Christian Citizens of Fairfax" argued that dressing up as devils and witches encouraged children to worship Satan, but their effort failed to sway school officials.
Four years ago, a few residents of Georgetown, Del., protested that the town's Halloween parade, which was on a Sunday, was essentially a celebration of "Satan's New Year's Eve" on "God's holy day." Town officials switched the festivities to Saturday, and the protesters participated as angels and biblical characters.
At least one Dasher Green parent argues that costume restrictions, even the "advisories" issued in Howard County schools, violate the idea of the separation of church and state. But Yount said it is his duty as an educator to try to influence the children's approach to the holiday.
"We are adults. I think, philosophically, that we're supposed to set a tone," he said.
"We have parents say, 'We happen to be Jehovah's Witnesses, and we disagree with this type of thing,' " Yount said. "But I tell them we have no way to tell parents what to do, we can only advise them."
Although Smith supports her school's principal, she has some misgivings. "I regret the fact that it has to be this way: All you get is this bland nothingness."
Religious groups in the area have already begun revising Halloween for their congregations. The Ellicott City Assembly of God is sponsoring a "Hallelujah Night," featuring games, prizes and refreshments -- and no costumes.
"The reason behind Halloween, with people giving out treats, is that evil spirits were roaming around in the neighborhood. And we don't want to promote that idea," said Renee Moreland, who is organizing the event. "We don't want to encourage witches and devils and things related to the occult."
Originating 2,000 years ago as a druidic ceremony pitched toward the god of the dead, Halloween was gradually Christianized. By the ninth century, it was a feast in honor of all the saints (All Hallows) and later all souls. Medieval Europeans contributed the element of elves, devils and witches flying on Halloween night. And the Scots and Irish added the costumes, parties and "trick or treat" tradition.
The subject of Satan keeps popping up in Howard County these days. Recently, responding to parental complaints, county school administrators decided to remove the book "Curses, Hexes and Spells" from county elementary schools.
The system's Criteria Review Committee ruled that the book, a tongue-in-cheek review of occult practices written by Daniel Cohen and published in 1974, "could negatively influence" young children.
The committee decided to retain "The Devil Did It," by Susan Jeschke, in which a little girl is visited by a pointy-eared creature who knots her hair and generally gets into mischief. A parent had objected that the message of the 1975 large-type storybook is "that one should make friends with the devil," but the committee disagreed, saying the book depicted "the classic theme of good triumphing over evil."