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You're not alone if you find Halloween dark, creepy and unhealthy.

Halloween backlash is as predictable this time of year as the appearance of a cheaply equipped (but not priced) costume store in your neighborhood shopping center.

That thing that paints the town orange and black has been reviled as anti-Christian, insulting to Wiccans, and inappropriate for Jews and Muslims.

"It's the pits for dentists,'' says Dr. Vicki Lindauer, who treats my children. "And especially for orthodontists. Honestly, kids' teeth are so bad today, we've been set back 30 years.''

Still, Halloween will not go away, and we can't seem to outgrow it. Retailers say it's more and more an adult holiday, sustained by baby boomers who won't grow up.

As tight as household budgets are, Crain's New York Business reports that 3 percent more Americans are expected to celebrate Halloween this year than last, largely because of the escapism it brings.

There's no escaping Halloween.

Schools, caught between popular culture and political correctness, give a half-nod to the holiday with events they call fall festivals.

It can be tank top and flip-flop weather. They'll slap on a pumpkin-pattern vest and call it fall.

Families are warned to leave the Halloween costumes at home. "We don't want to do anything that will scare the children,'' said Christine Hanjian, assistant principal of Carrollwood's Cannella Elementary School, presiding over a fall festival earlier this month.

Closer to the line are schools that hold costume parades on the week of, sometimes the day

of, the holiday. Both Claywell Elementary in Northdale and Pride Elementary in New Tampa will hold storybook parades on Oct. 31.

"We're trying to focus on the books,'' said Claywell media specialist Deborah Kline. "That's why we're having the children dress as their favorite character and walk around with their favorite storybook.''

The timing is not coincidental - school officials figured the children would be in a mood to dress up anyway. And if someone dresses as a character in, say, a Harry Potter book, they won't make a big deal of it as long as the child has a book.

Churches, similarly, make sure kids have something to do other than panhandling in their witches' garb. A Halloween alternative carnival at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz will have a Western theme, about as relevant in these parts as fall, but at least you know what to wear.

In Brandon, Cindy Snapp is planning her second Clown Around festival for Kings Avenue Baptist Church.

"We want the children to be in a safe environment, and that's why we offer a Christian alternative,'' said Snapp, the children's director.

She's going all out with biblical themes at each of more than 20 game booths. You can load Noah's ark up with pairs of animals, and so forth. Everybody gets a prize, and there's even a costume contest - you can be a princess, or a Biblical character, but nothing dark or violent.

I asked Snapp if the event is designed to discourage what some consider anti-Christian practices, but she didn't want to go down that road.

"The world is so scary nowadays, and we don't want children to have to go to strange houses,'' she said.

Fair enough. No need to offend otherwise moral people who can't let go of that witch's hat.

And take heart if you feel the urge to stand up for Halloween.

Soon you'll be joined by the "save Christmas'' crowd, who reject politically correct colloquialisms like, and here's my favorite, this being Florida: "the winter holidays.''

Marlene Sokol, who covers suburban issues in Hillsborough County, can be reached at or 269-5307.


Candy alternatives

So you don't want to be that mom who stuffs the treat bags with toothpaste, but you have to give out something. Here are some suggestions from Dr. Vicki Lindauer, a pediatric dentist in Carrollwood.

- Give out little boxes of raisins or other nonsugary snacks.

- If you must give away chocolate, go for Hershey's Kisses, which dissolve quickly in the mouth.

- Consider fast-food gift certificates as an alternative.Seriously? Says Lindauer, "One Happy Meal does not make a child obese.''