Teenagers who trick-or-treat in some cities could face something more threatening than any costumed zombie or ghost — like the long arm of the law.
Some cities across the country have adopted age limits — usually around 12 — for those who can travel door-to-door for candy and other Halloween fare. But while teen violators could face jail or fines up to $100, such laws are rarely strictly enforced.
Take Mayor Mark Eckert of Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis. He led a push in 2008 to ban trick or treating by high school-aged teens in that community of about 35,000 people.
"When I was a kid my father said to me, 'You're too damn big to be going trick-or-treating. You're done," Eckert said. "When that doesn't happen, then that's reason for the city governments to intervene."
Some Belleville residents have complained about the ordinance, he said. But he added that he hears more often from those thankful for the age limit. The ordinance also prohibits those over 12 years old from wearing masks in public any other day of the year.
In Virginia, several cities have had trick-or-treating age limits on the books since the 1970s. City officials from Meridian, Miss., to Bishopville, S.C., and Boonsboro, Md., have cut off the trick-or-treat age at 12.
Still, officials cannot recall anyone ever being arrested or fined for being too old to trick-or-treat.
If anything, officers will let teens off with a warning or a call to their parents, said Lou Thurston, spokesman for the Newport News Police Department in Virginia.
"It's not like we have officers that are patrolling the neighborhoods saying 'How old are you?' That's not the point," Thurston said. "The point is making the place safe."
Even if they wanted to, officials acknowledge the laws are difficult to enforce. Still, they say putting the word out about the laws every year keeps too many teens from violating the bans.
There's no way to know exactly how many cities have such ordinances. The National League of Cities doesn't keep track of ordinances, and states have left such matters up to the localities.
Trick-or-treating evolved out of the late medieval custom of children asking for treats in exchange for praying for the dead of the household, said Hans Broedel, a University of North Dakota history professor and expert on early traditions.
Tricks — usually vandalism and other debauchery by teens and young adults — were a big part of Halloween for a time until a conscious effort in the 19th and early 20th centuries to shift the celebration toward children, Broedel said.
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Excluding teens from trick-or-treating could make it more appealing to do other, less desirable, things, he said.
"Trick-or-treating in a large part is embraced in this country because it serves to cut down on teenage vandalism," Broedel said. "Certainly telling teenagers they can't go trick-or-treating isn't going to stop them from going out on Halloween and doing whatever."
John Womeldorf, a real estate agent in James City County, Va., has two sons ages 12 and 11. He said his 12-year-old is bummed that this will be his last year to trick-or-treat, but he looks forward to scaring kids who come for candy next year.
Womeldorf said he doesn't remember any such rules as a kid but see why they might be necessary now.
"It is a different world than I grew up in so I guess we do have to have certain things like that in place to be enforced if needed," he said.
Still, Alisa Alexander Goetz of Jordan, Minn., questions why such restrictions are needed. Kids grow up too fast, she said, so why not let them continue the tradition?
Of trick or treating, she said, "It's better than them out drinking or getting into trouble."