Prepare yourself this Halloween for a procession of pint-sized trick-or-treaters like none you've encountered before. If the companies that gamble on offering the right mix of costumes are correct, visitors to your doorstep will include a grisly array of waist-high killer clowns brandishing blood-soaked machetes, deranged convicts and zombie ninjas armed with knives.
Add to that the full roster of fictional killers who gave people nightmares during the '80s and '90s Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees from "Friday the 13th" and Chucky, the murderous doll from "Child's Play" now available in sizes that can fit a 5-year-old.
These costumes make last year's popular "Scream" mask filled with fake blood seem almost tame.
Earlier this month, Amber Boettcher brought her 6-year-old daughter Addi to a Halloween store near their home in southeastern Minnesota. They were looking for pompoms to add to Addi's homemade costume. But their shopping trip ended abruptly when Addi saw the array of gory outfits on sale for kids.
"She freaked out," Boettcher says. "The store was so gross and scary that we left."
Gory Halloween costumes aren't new, of course. And Halloween decorations have gotten just as intense: Spirit Halloween offers a disturbingly realistic mechanical version of the possessed girl from "The Exorcist" for your front lawn, and PaperMart offers plastic severed hands splattered with fake blood packaged as though they've been wrapped at a butcher shop, perfect for decorating the buffet table at a Halloween party.
But in a year when Abraham Lincoln was depicted as a vampire hunter and zombies are everywhere, gory costumes that were once reserved for preteens and teens are now available in ever-smaller sizes.
"For the last couple of years, darker is where it's been at," says Melissa Sprich, vice president of Halloween merchandising for Party City. For babies and toddlers, Sprich says "darker" may mean dressing as a devil this year, rather than a cheerful dinosaur. But for all other ages, many parents are seeking vampires, zombies and "the Freddies, Jasons and Chuckys" even for kids too young to see those characters on screen.
The companies that license these characters' images determine how small the costumes can run, with some drawing the line for horror characters at sizes 6-8 or 10-12. But while "6-8" technically refers to ages 6-8, many boys wear that size at age 5.
David J. Skal, who has chronicled America's fascination with horror since the 1990s in numerous books, including The Monster Show, says he's surprised at the level of "monster-ization of children" we're seeing this year.
He points out that for centuries, frightening masks and "scary stories have been used to pass on a kind of coming-of-age message to children that the world is not always a safe and welcoming place." Perhaps, he says, this year parents are especially preoccupied with just how unwelcoming the world seems.
Researching his history of Halloween, Death Makes a Holiday, Skal spoke with people who grew up during the Great Depression, and remembered dressing up as what they called "hobos and bums." At that time, he says, "people were very concerned that the whole social fabric was coming apart. The idea of the rise of the unwashed masses kind of has a parallel with our fascination with zombies."
Chris Alexander, editor-in-chief of the long-running horror magazine Fangoria, says in the 1930s, characters we now see as relatively harmless like Frankenstein's monster or Count Dracula were unsettling moviegoers just like Chucky or Michael Myers.
But, Alexander points out, those characters were effectively defanged through decades of adaptation before they became dress-up fodder for preschoolers. Frankenstein's monster morphed into bumbling Herman Munster and Dracula eventually translated into Count von Count on "Sesame Street." No such softening has happened with characters like child-killer Freddy Krueger: They are realistically depicted in latex and fabric, then wrapped around little trick-or-treaters.
Even Alexander, who edits a horror magazine and makes low-budget horror films, says the current crop of costumes is too gory for him to consider buying for his own 5-year-old.
"My office is a nightmare come to life," he says, "but I would never dress my child up as Freddy Krueger or Jason. â¦ I'm quite shocked when I see it."
Party City's Sprich notes that the popularity of retro horror characters like Chucky is part of a larger wave of nostalgia for the era when today's parents were kids. The "Ghostbusters" and video game characters Mario and Luigi are also hot right now.
Today's parents are reveling in that nostalgia, and their children are likely to feel empowered when older kids and adults are shocked or impressed by the edginess of their costumes, says Cynthia Edwards, professor of child psychology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
"Part of the thrill of Halloween for little kids is that you put on a costume and you become the thing. If you dress up as a fairy princess or a pilot, you are a fairy princess or a pilot for a couple of hours. But that's when you get to the question, If you dress up as a really horrible thing, what is the kids' perception of that?"
A single day spent surrounded by horror imagery probably won't have lasting impact on kids, Edwards says. But some children will be unsettled by dressing up in realistically gory costumes or by seeing classmates dressed that way.
What can be especially confusing for kids, according to Fangoria's Alexander, is that "parents, by and large, will say 'no' to horror and say 'no' to gore for kids all year long. But once a year they have no qualms about taking them to stores with body parts everywhere and animatronic dead things coming at them" to buy disturbing costumes.
Then, he says, without offering kids any way to put all of this disturbing imagery and play-acting into context, "as soon as Oct. 31 is over, horror is buried again."
A couple of grisly examples
"Skinned Alive" • The national chain Party City's "Boys Skinned Alive" costume will fit, according the company's website, "most children over 4."
Evil sock monkey • Even costumes that were once benign now have violent twists: The sweet, simple "sock monkey" is now a bloody zombie sock monkey with razor-sharp teeth, sold in sizes small enough for kindergarteners.