There's a nip of fall in the air, and as twilight comes to the Old Northeast neighborhood in St. Petersburg, small bands of tiny costumed ghouls and goblins begin to wend their way from house to house.
Halloween here has become the most festive night of the year. By nightfall, multitudes of trick-or-treaters from across the Tampa Bay area pour into the nearby streets in celebration of All Hallow's Eve, an evening made bright by the smiles of thousands of children.
For weeks, residents have been decorating in anticipation of the evening. Themes run from simple jack-o'-lanterns on the porch to full-blown horror-show extravaganzas. Skeletons lounge in front yards, ghosts and zombies swing from the trees, severed heads taunt passing trick-or-treaters, and eerie shadows rule the night.
Streets quickly fill as children emerge from buses and cars. Neighbors spend the evening on their spacious porches, offering friendly greetings and candy to the revelers as they visit each house.
Halloween in the Old Northeast has become the biggest celebration of its kind in the Tampa Bay area. Why this happened puzzles many residents, but some suspect it might have something to do with a pair of witches on bicycles.
Back when the holiday still was just a local affair, Cynthia Serra and Connie Lancaster got the idea to dress as witches and ride around the Old Northeast passing out candy. Both lived in the area, and they loved how Halloween seemed to bring out the best in the neighborhood.
The women hatched a plan to award prizes for the best-decorated houses and approached the Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association (HONNA) and Serra's employer, Smith & Associates Real Estate, about sponsoring the contest.
The first Halloween decoration competition took place in 1996, and 20 households participated. More than 200 are expected to enter this year. As the contest has grown, so have the crowds.
"We bought our house in 1994," Pamela Bennett recalls, "and might have had 75 to 100 trick-or-treaters that first Halloween."
Her husband, David, adds: "I have lived in the Old Northeast since the 1970s, and back then Halloween wasn't really a big deal. In the last three years, we've lost count of the number of people coming to our door when it gets over 2,000."
That is no exaggeration. In recent years, a number of city blocks have been closed to traffic to accommodate the revelers. The St. Petersburg Police Department posts officers at busy intersections to help ease congestion.
Like most of their neighbors, the Bennetts have come to embrace the celebration. They begin decorating their house weeks in advance, and on Halloween evening, they host a party for family and close friends. Everybody takes turns handing out candy as the "trick-or-treat" chorus and parade of costumed children go on well after nightfall.
The competition for prizes also has intensified. Three ribbons are awarded for first, second and third places, and a special award is presented for the best-themed decor. Judges are neighborhood volunteers from all age groups who view entries the night before, then meet to vote on the winners.
"There are so many great ones it's always hard to pick a favorite," Serra says. "Neighbors seem to get more creative every year."
In 2011, a stage was set up on 18th Avenue NE, where two evening shows re-enacted Michael Jackson's Thriller video. In 2012 another house competed for the theme award with a gigantic Angry Birds display, replete with an iconic Red Bird flying across the yard.
Cemeteries pop up in front yards, and light emanates from trees and windows. At one house, a group of skeletons sink with the Titanic. At another, two more skeletons dressed as pirates frolic on a beach just down from the Dead and Breakfast Inn.
Through it all, a steady stream of costumed children parade through the streets, alternately frightened and grinning ear to ear. House to house they go, plastic pumpkins and pillowcases filling with candy.
Jennifer and Jeremy Jackson have been bringing their two children to the Old Northeast for the past five years. "The kids absolutely love it," Jennifer says. "We live in north St. Pete, and nobody goes out to trick-or-treat in our neighborhood. And we love seeing all the decorations, and the crowds are fantastic."
Serra no longer dresses as a witch or rides around the neighborhood passing out candy. Now she elects to stay home and enjoy the children who come trick-or-treating at her door.
For her, the grand Halloween celebration she helped start has always been about the youngsters.
"The kids have such a great time," she says. "That's what I love the most."