On Halloween night, you may find more pint-sized princesses and super heroes bouncing in inflatable toys and collecting candy in church parking lots than roaming your neighborhood streets for sweets.
Trunk or treats, harvest festivals and Halloween alternatives abound in Bakersfield. Most of the events are free with food and drink available to buy. From secular to religious events, organizers said their bashes attract hundreds or even thousands of people and are steadily growing.
"We just had tons of people last year. I didn't even recognize half of them," said Monica Espejo, children's ministry director at The Oaks Community Church. She estimated nearly 1,000 people turned out last year and she is expecting more will show up Monday.
The phenomenon isn't unique to Bakersfield. Tony Kummer, founder of the website Ministry-To-Children.com, said his post about trunk or treat has garnered 30,000 unique visits this month and 90,000 visits since it was posted two years ago.
Besides a trend toward safer trick-or-treating, the popularity of church events also shows a shift in some Christians' attitude toward Halloween. Kummer said that in the past, fundamentalist Christianity approached Halloween as a satanic holiday when "good Christians lock themselves in the basement and pray," but today churches large and small are coming to terms with Halloween as part of the culture.
"You have a range of purposes in what churches are doing but in general the idea is you don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater," Kummer said. "Even if it's not an attempt to proselytize, those churches feel like by providing a positive (event) they are saying to the community, 'We care about children.'"
Kummer said churches may be warming up to Halloween-themed gatherings because costuming is trending away from witchcraft-inspired get-ups to Hollywood characters.
"I think that's made it easier to say this is probably not about witchcraft, it's about kids having fun," Kummer said.
In Bakersfield, church festival planners vary in their views of the purpose of their events. Some said their festivities provide an alternative to what they see as the evil connotations of Halloween, while others said they just want their members and neighbors to come together for a night of fun.
"If we didn't want to have any connotation with Halloween then we wouldn't have it on that day," said Carol Scheevel, director of children's ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Bakersfield. "We recognize that kids love to dress up and love to get candy...It's a reality of childhood."
At The Oaks Community Church, Espejo said the ministry's fest is biblically themed, with religious dramas and a faith walk children and their parents can explore.
"We really want to shine Jesus' light on this dark night," Espejo said. "In the worldly way (Halloween is) all about the goblins. We want to be a light to our community."
The festival feats are cobbled together with candy collected by volunteers and car trunks decorated by church members. Rille Pinault, communications director for Laurelglen Bible Church, said her congregation is preparing for 3,000 attendees at their Ashe Bash with 500 bales of hay to construct a maze and a "man cave" where dads can watch Monday night football.
"Every year it gets a little bit bigger," Pinault said. "Most of our members come and help because everything is put on by volunteers."
The church celebrations also keep businesses busy. When Cheryl Ruiz opened Kiddie Amusements Inc. in 1996, one or two churches rented party gear from her for their fall fests. This year she's supplying inflatable bounce houses and carnival games to about 10 churches, including ministries in Delano, Shafter and Taft.
"A lot of the people from Bakersfield do go to these events," Ruiz said by phone Thursday. "We've been busy for the last several weeks getting ready."
The planners behind the plethora of harvest fests said their events provide a safe alternative to letting children loose on the streets of Bakersfield. Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard was inspired to start a Halloween gathering in Oildale after witnessing his son's Washington church provide trunk or treating in a poor Tacoma neighborhood. He said people are gravitating toward "more controlled environments" rather than letting their kids trick-or-treat.
The event held Saturday gets a boost from volunteers from Maggard's church, Valley Bible Fellowship, and local law enforcement agencies.
"It's a safe way for children in Oildale to be able to celebrate Halloween. There's no issue of dealing with stray dogs or dark streets," Maggard said. "It is a wholesome environment for them."