The parking lot of Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in Beloit, Wis., is filled with dozens of costumed kids hungry for candy at an early Halloween event.
But the princesses and Iron Men aren't yelling "trick or treat." Instead, it's "trunk or treat" — and that's because these kids, rather than going door to door, are going from car trunk to car trunk. Each car is decorated with a theme.
Pastor Jason Reed says his church likes to focus on the fun — rather than freaky — parts of Halloween.
"I know a lot of Christian denominations think that Halloween's from the devil, all this and that," he says. "For what it's worth, if the kids are going to have some fun making fun of the devil, then let them, and if they're going to get some candy out of it, wonderful. And if we're going to have fun laughing with them, spectacular."
It's that discomfort with some of Halloween's themes that first led churches to start trunk-or-treat events in the late 1990s, according to Halloween historian Lesley Bannatyne.
"A trunk or treat became a very gentle and kind and child-friendly way to deal with the fact that the church didn't approve of Halloween," Bannatyne says. "It's very similar to Halloween, and you don't give away any of the great stuff like costumes and candy, but you can control it and keep away the imagery that you don't like."
And Bannatyne says trunk or treats are a safer alternative than going door to door.
"The biggest danger to children on Halloween night is traffic, and so trunk-or-treating takes that away completely," she says. "There are no moving cars, all the cars are parked and ... you get to control whose car is there, so you know who's giving your children candy."
She says that's why the trend is catching on with more than just religious groups.
A Boys and Girls Club in California, cities in Florida and Iowa and even police and fire departments in Minnesota have participated in trunk or treats.
At IDEAL School in Milwaukee, teacher Jennifer Carter says she'd never heard of trunk-or-treating until a PTA parent got the idea from her church four years ago.
Now the annual event allows Carter's students to celebrate Halloween, while being respectful of families that don't.
"In fact, it's called trunk-or-treat night, it's not called Halloween night," she says. "Now, obviously, it has many connotations to it ... but it is very much done in a respectful way, though, that families are well aware [of], and ... they do not have to participate, obviously, because it's an afterschool event."
Milwaukee parent Fiona Nicolaisen says having her children go door to door can be tricky in an urban area.
"In Milwaukee here, a lot of the trick-or-treating is during the day," Nicolaisen says. "So trunk-or-treating at night is a nice way for my kids to know what it was like when I used to go out trick-or-treating in the dark."
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