Be careful with those Halloween costumes: they might just spook someone. That, at least, is the prevailing wisdom in America's schools, where the national obsession with "trick or treat" is being compromised by the dead hand of political correctness.
In a country where few things are quite so terrifying as an expensive lawsuit, and pagan tradition sits uneasily with religious conviction, many teachers have started banning small children from dressing up in a manner that could upset, offend, or even scare their peers. Out go vampire cloaks, zombie masks, plastic weapons, and fake blood. In come "princess" dresses, cuddly animal outfits, and the occasional jauntily placed top hat.
Fangs and fingernail extensions are completely verboten; witches' robes are frowned upon. Instead, costumes must be broadly "positive".
Not all of this is new: US school boards have for years been issuing broad guidelines about costumes, accessories and behaviour that it permitted at the sometimes elaborate, and always eagerly anticipated dances and parades that take place each 31 October.
However, in the past, they've tended to clamp down only on outfits and accessories deemed either antisocial (messy, coloured hair spray, for example), dangerous (fake daggers, axes or other weapons) or in some way racially insensitive.
This year, by contrast, children are being prevented from wearing some outfits on grounds that they're ever-so-slightly scary – so could upset young people of a delicate disposition, or be offensive to conservative Christians.
In Illinois, a school district told its children to dress up as "historical characters" or "food items" rather than the more time-honoured option of witches and ghosts.
"We're balancing traditions with the times we live in," said a spokesman. "Several years ago, there was some push-back in our community. Some people thought Halloween was a Satanic ritual. Well, let's not say Satanic ... let's say they were not comfortable with what it represents."
Riverside Drive Elementary, a state school in the San Fernando Valley just north of Hollywood, meanwhile woke up yesterday to find that its sternly-worded memo to parents about "costume appropriateness" of their children at yesterday's Halloween parade had been leaked to the New York Times.
It specified six rules: "They should not depict gangs or horror characters, or be scary," read one. "Masks are allowed only during the parade," read another. "Costumes may not demean any race, religion, nationality, handicapped condition or gender," said a third.
Under Riverside Drive Elementary's guidelines, the newspaper wryly observed, Little Bo Peep would be considered acceptable, but her shepherd's crook would not. The school's headmaster declined to comment, but some parents were not so reticent.
"Can't parents have discretion?" complained Joel Bishoff, whose young son plans to attend the school's parade dressed as a box of breakfast cereal.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies