NEW YORK – Realistic looking corpses. Caskets doubling as couches. Haunted-house scenes depicting murder and gore. Halloween paraphernalia has become scarier, ghastlier and more over-the-top than ever.
Industry insiders say it's all in the spirit of the season. But others think the holiday has gone too far -- especially considering today's violence- and terror-ridden times.
"The sniper and terror stuff have unfortunately put a damper on the Halloween spirit," said Rod Spain, owner of Creative Corpses/Products by Rod. "But people still like to be scared by the fantasy of Halloween."
But not everyone has the same idea of what's appropriate.
Stella Zeabin of Casket Furniture says the company tries to take a lighter approach toward death, making hand-carved coffins that people can use well before they need them.
Spain says his life-size corpses are meant to be funny. Some are even caricatures, like "John Ravolta," modeled after the Pulp Fiction actor.
And Larry Kirchner of St. Louis-based Halloween Productions, a haunted attractions supplier, believes the season's frights are an innocent way for people to get a thrill.
But members of certain victims' rights groups aren't thrilled by the gore.
"The gravestones and people coming out of the ground are upsetting to some of our members," said Nancy Ruhe-Munch, executive director of Parents of Murdered Children. "I just think it's sad when we make a game or a costume out of death."
Kirchner says it's offensive when haunted houses recreate tragedies that actually happened, and thinks they bring the entire industry down.
"What I think is too far is when somebody uses real-life horror events to scare people," he said. "If I see a haunted house depicting [cannibal] Jeffrey Dahmer for profit, I think that's disgusting."
But the majority of today's haunted houses are family-friendly, said Kirchner, who gets frustrated when the industry is slapped with a bad rap because of a few tasteless examples.
"Halloween is a time to be somebody you're not, dress up, trick-or-treat," Kirchner said. "We're just trying to have a good, creepy, fun time. Why is it that Halloween has to be associated with something bad?"
Ruhe-Munch said organizations like PMOC, which launched a "Murder is not Entertainment" campaign, aren't trying to take the holiday away, but wish people were more sensitive about their front-yard displays and costumes.
"Halloween can be fun," she said. "But when it comes to blood and gore, people can't see that this can have an impact. Murder seems to be an acceptable form of entertainment, whereas with other types of tragedies, we don't make jokes out of them."
Spain said he got into the fake-corpse business not to make light of tragedy but out of his fascination with prop design, theatrical makeup and Oct. 31.
"I've been really interested in special effects," he said. "And I am a Halloween nut."
His 10-year-old daughter, Brianne, said her dad designs corpses rather than standbys like witches and goblins because he's trying to be original.
"He wants to put oomph in his decorations," she said.
And despite the theme, Zeabin said Casket Furniture isn't a Halloween-prop company.
"He came up with furniture that would convert into a casket when there's a need," Zeabin said of her son, Mark, the president and chief artisan of the company. "We get more coverage at Halloween, but I don't think we've sold to anyone who is really morbid. And I've never associated our business with the awful things that have been happening."
Mother M.C. Keegan-Ayer of Frederick, Md., who lives close to where the sniper killings happened, thinks certain things are to be expected around Halloween but parents have to impose limits.
"A rotting corpse coming out of a coffin at this time of year is kind of indicative of the season," she said. "Where it crosses the line is when it gets a little too close to what's going on. In the Washington area, things dealing with guns and shooting are going to be offensive."
But Ruhe-Munch doesn't understand why anything making light of death is considered OK.
"I wouldn't allow my child to dress up as a junkie or a pimp or an AIDS victim," she said. "Why would I let him dress up as a murderer or a victim? We're sending the wrong message."