It's scary how big Halloween has become

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By Steve Doyle

Sometime during the last couple of decades, the exact moment seems to have gone unrecorded, a witch toiling over a boiling caldron somehow threw in the right mix of eye of newt, cats whiskers and the dander of Cousin It to conjure up a spell that suddenly made Halloween very important.

What always had seemed to be a fun little candyfest that captured the attention of small children, their parents and their dentists for, oh, maybe two weeks now has become some sort of monthslong homage to all things scary and saccharine.

We're still in the sweaty days of summer when large displays emerge in the aisles of our grocery stories, pharmacies, country stores and even the hardware stores, showing us how to celebrate Halloween properly.

And as soon fall clicks onto the calendar, you drive down neighborhood streets and see outdoor displays probably on par with those that awed you as a child during Christmas, before millions of lights and moving parts became mainstays of our illumination expectations.

What used to be a jack-o-lantern on the porch and maybe a spider web on the eave - most likely a real web at that - has given way to a family of O-lanterns on the porch and the whole side of the house covered with not only in a web but with a fake spider, too. There are colorful lights on the shrubbery and spotlights making sure you can see the ghosts and skeletons hanging from trees. Tombstones replace the birdbaths.

And what's with the 7-foot, inflatable Tigger dressed up as a vampire? Tigger as a blood-drinking undead? And weren't those blow-up personifications licensed by Santa and Frosty?

To be sure, Halloween has learned a lot from Christmas, and those lessons are not limited to outdoor displays.

There are the dozens of community events. Every school, township, community group, some churches and, yes, even your dentist seems to have some sort of public function. Pumpkin carving has gone from a creative kid with a kitchen knife to an affaire de' artiste.

But what Halloween mostly has learned from Christmas is how to exploit characters, much in the manner that Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer evolved from old song, to animated movie (or three), to action figures, to expensive, collectible decorations.

Halloween, too, has become a next big event when books, movies, cartoons and other intellectual properties can be consumed by the masses.

You hear often that there's no margin at the box office these days, so creators look for ways to get characters into Happy Meals. They want them to be collectible or personal, as in costumes. So how many Hannah Montanas or High School Musical stars do you think will knock on your door this year?

Hopefully, those knocking will be small, but don't think this trend has ignored the grown-ups or even the family pet. Adults used to dress up for, uh, fantasy, but now they do so at work or to answer the trick-or-treaters or for their own little brew-tasting.

There's a Hillary Clinton mask at Walgreen's. Somebody other than Tina Fey surely has Sarah Palin's glasses (nasal accents are extra), and ears like Barack Obama's are, well, an asset to your costume. A little girl might be Wonder Woman at age 7 and again at 37, though the role-playing might be a bit more than simply wearing gold bracelets.

Some adults, though, aren't caught up in this new frenzy, at least not in that way. They would rather play Scrooge than any other character you could name.

They oppose Halloween on ideological and theological grounds. The debate is fair, and the points are well made. And each person has the right to sit out any dance he or she chooses.

But my experience is that most parents who today see Halloween as a celebration of evil were, back in their day, just as eager to punch eyeholes in an old sheet and knock on as many doors as possible. Heck, a few may have soaped a window or two. (Those who tipped outhouses probably never gave any of this a thought.)

What they would not admit today and what is increasingly obvious is that, nonsecular issues aside, Halloween is a lot more like Easter than it is any other holiday.

Halloween has assumed the role as the welcoming event for the fall (just as Thanksgiving does for Christmas). It's a harbinger, a trendsetter beyond Labor Day's line of when you should or should not wear white shoes.

The market for uncooked pumpkins was expanded by Halloween, and now you can see beautiful interior and exterior decorative displays built around them that last until time for your Christmas finest.

Easter plays that role for spring, ushering in new color and freshness - and, yes, the white shoes -- for a whole new warm season (hopefully). And, yes, there's even a big bunny sitting at the mall to hear your child's wishes.

All of this is not to say Halloween is a bad thing or even too much of a thing. It's rapidly rising $5 billion in annual spending lags far behind others because there is no gift giving involved (give it time, give it time).

The point is to admit that Halloween is a Big Thing and to scratch your head and wonder how it all happened.

Here's one more theory: The common denominator might actually be gold old Charlie Brown.

Back in the late 1960s, Charlie ventured out in search of the Christmas spirit he felt was missing from his community, his friends and the world in general.

He made a statement that resonated then and endures today. Think how much Christmas has changed since that time when you heard Charlie recite The Christmas Story.

Charlie and his pals also begat The Great Pumpkin, which brought a whole new focus to Halloween. Linus's exploits in the pumpkin patch captured a new generation of the curious and provided a marketing tool for a new holiday.

So maybe it wasn't the witch's brew after all.

Maybe The Great Pumpkin did rise from the pumpkin patch, and the marketers retailers were the only ones who were there to see it. At least their wishes seem to have been granted.