Witches, beware. Mummies, be gone. Halloween may be a celebration of all things creepy and macabre, but a growing number of US communities are shunning traditional ghoulish festivities, seen by some as tainted by association with paganism and the occult.


On Saturday, the streets of US cities and towns will fill with zombies, vampires and worse, as children clad in sometimes-fearsome costumes go door to door in search of candy handouts in the annual ritual of "trick-or-treating."

The days leading up to the October 31 festivities often are marked by similarly ghoulish celebrations at US schools and community centers.

Not everyone sees Halloween as good, wholesome fun, however. Complaints about costumes deemed as Satanic, creepy or culturally insensitive have led a growing number of churches, schools and community groups to replace Halloween festivities with "fall festivals" featuring costume parades and party celebrations stripped of all associations to monsters, goblins and witches.

Christian conservatives have led the way in opposing the traditional Halloween revelry.

"Many believers ... find some aspects of Halloween celebrations disturbing," said James Dobson, head of the "Focus On the Family" organization, one of the most influential Christian groups in the United States.

Dobson told followers on his website that he takes particular exception to the "traditional emphasis upon the occult, witches, devils, death, and evil" in many Halloween celebrations that focus on faux haunted houses and fake severed limbs.

"There is clearly no place in the Christian community for this 'darker side' of Halloween," said said Dobson, whose syndicated radio programs are heard on hundreds of stations across the United States. He suggested kids dress up as Disney characters or similarly innocuous figures who don't evoke the netherworld.

"Make costumes for your children that represent fun characters, such as Mickey Mouse or an elderly grandmother, and then let them go door-to-door asking for treats," he suggested.

At Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, youth minister Carlos Reyes said their October 31 celebration features "games and costumes without all the ghoulish stuff." An early evening event for elementary school children is followed by an evening party for teens,

"We're trying to take the night back and give kids something to do," he said.

Theirs is a costume parade with a twist, he said.

"Some of the kid dress up as biblical characters -- there were a lot of Noahs last year," he said, as well as quite a few King Davids.

For girls, he said "the stanadard is Mary the mother of Jesus," while another favorite is the old Testament figure "Esther. She has a book all to herself."

And as far as typical scary Halloween fare goes, he said it just does not fit with their message.

"We're a Bible-based church," he said. "We call it 'No Fear Night.' God has not given us a spirit of fear," Reyes said.

Halloween -- a named taken from "All Hallows' Even" falls on the day before All Saints' Day on November 1 -- a holiday when Christians remember their deceased loved ones.

Although the fete is largely devoid of religious meaning today, its antecedents are in fact pagan, with origins in ancient Celtic observances marking the end of summer and, some say, paying homage to the netherworld.

Concern over the "occult" tone of Halloween is not restricted to the United States. In Spain earlier this week, Roman Catholic leaders sounded an alarm over the growing popularity of Halloween, calling it "pagan," "anti-Christian" and a celebration of death over life. The Bishop of Siguenza-Guadalajara, Jose Sanchez, went as far as to say that Halloween "was not an innocent festivity" because it "has a background of the occult and anti-Christianity."

Others who look askance at Halloween are critical of adult-themed costumes that border on the sexually suggestive and its popularity in some parts of the gay community, which long has viewed Halloween as an occasion to host campy celebrations with revelers often dressed in drag.

Some say that at a time when America has become more diverse and inclusive of various immigrant communities, the Halloween symbolism can be off-putting for new arrivals in the country.

Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Columbia University's Barnard College, said moves to tone down or even do away with public Halloween celebrations may be "the price of living in a pluralistic society."

"It's a gesture in the direction of inclusion, if people have a belief that makes them uncomfortable with traditional Halloween. Those who are in responsbility have to be sensitive to those concerns," Balmer told AFP.

"What people do privately or with their families is a different matter, as long as it's not offensive to others."

Balmer noted that efforts to offer an alternative to Halloween are part of a larger move to ensure that religious symbols are kept out of public life, citing as an example "the move by public schools to do away or at least moderate Christmas celebrations" in deference to non-Christian students.

One school in Maryland, Monocacy Valley Montessori Public Charter School, is hosting an "International Children's day" as an alternative to Halloween, with kids wearing outfits from around the world rather than scary costumes.

And the principal at another area school with a large immigrant community, Sligo Creek Elementary School, decided to dispense with the annual Halloween-themed parade and classroom parties in favor of a "Fall Festival" with a "focus on reading and literacy."

"We want to provide an activity that includes all students as active participants," Diantha Swift wrote in a letter to parents.