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Growing 'Trunk-or-Treat' Trend Changes Up Halloween Tradition

It seems like a pretty normal Halloween scene: Pastor Jason Reed of the Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in Beloit is about to hand candy out to a couple of princesses.

But instead of yelling "Trick or Treat," the girls call for candy with "Trunk or treat!"

Rather than going door-to-door, these costumed kids are going from car trunk-to-car trunk around the church parking lot. It's a new trend that's growing across the country.

Reed says this is his church’s second annual trunk-or-treat.

“It’s really just one overarching concept: you bring a bunch of cars together, you give candy out from the trunks of the vehicles.”

Each car is decorated, which lets the adults get in on the fun. One man dressed as Moses hands candy to Iron Man. Karl Wetzel of Orfordville is dressed as Noah and his car is decorated as an ark. He says trunk-or-treats are a safer alternative than having kids go door-to-door.

“We’re trying to make a safe place for the kids to come trick or treat," he says. "It’s something the kids have lost out on anymore. We still have it, (but) there’s fewer and frewer.”

Pastor Reed says his church doesn’t oppose Halloween like some Christian denominations, but does want to respect the Bible’s teachings, especially when it comes to the story of Jesus’ Resurrection.

"We’ve gotten into the whole mind set of 'The Walking Dead,' and where that's concerned, I think making a mockery in that regard is where the challenge gets to be," he says, "because you’re talking about a full bodily resurrection - great wonderful - not seeking to eat the living, pull out their brains out and chew on those."

It’s that discomfort with some of Halloween’s themes that first led churches to start trunk-or-treat events in the late '90s, 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," she 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 you don’t like.”

But Bannatyne says the trend is catching on with more than just religious groups. It turns out trunk-or-treats are good for businesses, as well.

The car-themed restaurant Quaker Steak and Lube in New Berlin just got on the trunk-or-treat bandwagon this year. Marketing and activities coordinator Leah Kush says she wanted an event that would attract families, as well as local gear-heads.

“Our car cruisers were asking for an October show and we wanted to beef up kids events," she says. "When I heard about trunk-or-treat, I thought it was a perfect mash-up between the two to get our car cruisers out an the families out and mix them for trunk or treat."

So last weekend, Quaker Steak’s parking lot was filled with all sorts of hot-rods decorated to the nines, including matte black "rat rods," which are "gothy" old cars finished with matte black paint. Other highlights of the trunk-or-treat were a Mickey and Minnie-themed car and Scooby Doo's Mystery Machine.

"That's a really fun one that kids love to see," she says.

That kid-friendly, family factor also makes trunk-or-treats an attractive option for schools. Milwaukee’s IDEAL School, a public elementary school, just held its fourth annual trunk-or-treat event, which also includes a dinner and other activities.

Teacher Jennifer Carter says the event came from a PTA parent got the idea from her church. She says it brings families together, since it's fun for kids and mom and dad.

“Parents will ask way back in May," she says. "They’ve kind of become a little competitive about how they’re going to do decorate and do their thing outside. That’s fun, the camaraderie. That's what makes it fun, that sense of community in your school."

Milwaukee parent Susan Wetrich has really gotten into the spirit of the event, decorating her trunk with a disco ball and lights. She says she hadn’t heard of trunk-or-treating until her kids came to IDEAL School.

“I thought it was an awesome idea," she says. "It's a very safe way to have a family activity and a very good way to get parents out to school."

So while regular trick-or-treating likely isn’t going away any time soon, expect to see more trunk-or-treats next October coming to a parking lot near you.