For 16 years, real horror overshadowed the make-believe terror of Halloween in this northwestern Pennsylvania town, where nighttime trick-or-treating was banned after an 11-year-old girl was abducted and murdered.
But on Friday, pint-sized witches, princesses and vampires will once again be shuffling from house to house at night, thanks to a petition drive by a fifth-grader.
Elizabeth Roess gathered signatures, wrote an essay outlining her argument, and persuaded the city council two months ago to bring back after-dark trick-or-treating.
“I was a little scared that happened,” Elizabeth said of the 1992 slaying of Shauna Howe, who was kidnapped while walking home from a pre-Halloween party. But she added: “I did this and now I'm so happy.”
For weeks now, children and their parents in this struggling, working-class town of 10,000 about 80 miles north of Pittsburgh have been eagerly anticipating Halloween's return, though not without some trepidation.
Shannon Goodman got a tether to make sure her 2-year-old daughter, who will dress as a witch, doesn't wander off while they go door to door. “It's going to be a lot of fun, but every parent who cares about their kid should have that fear,” she said.
Fifteen-year-old Braden Craig said: “I have a gut-wrenching feeling something bad's going to happen.”
The police department plans to have seven officers on duty Friday night, or about twice the usual number, in addition to four school security guards and all 10 of the town's crossing guards.
“If this all goes well, that's great, that's fantastic. I long for those days, too. But the world has changed,” said police Chief Robert Wenner, a father of five who was a patrol officer when the murder occurred.
The local radio station has been running a public service announcement by Wenner urging parents to accompany their children, examine any candy before it is eaten and make sure kids wear reflective material.
The police chief said Shauna's murder shattered the “Mayberry attitude” many people in Oil City had toward their hometown.
Shauna, whose family no longer lives in the area, was abducted on Oct. 27. Three days later, her battered body was found under a railroad trestle eight miles away.
With the town gripped by fear that a child killer was on the loose, trick-or-treating the next day was held in daylight for the first time. Police watched from helicopters as parents led their children from house to house along quiet streets.
Residents also began locking their doors and driving their children to school. And every year afterward, the city council voted to allow trick-or-treating in the afternoon only, a move duplicated around the same time by many other U.S. cities and towns worried about children's safety.
The Oil City murder remained unsolved until a witness came forward four years ago and police turned to DNA evidence. Two brothers were arrested and convicted of murder and sexual assault. A third man pleaded guilty to murder.
Hoping to move Halloween back to night hours, Elizabeth, her mother, grandmother and family friends gathered 175 signatures. The 10-year-old also wrote a paper in which she made her case. Among her reasons: Halloween decorations are best appreciated at night, and many people aren't home during the day to give out candy.
The council vote was unanimous. Elizabeth plans on dressing up as a Goth princess bride.
“Unfortunately, Shauna's tragedy seemed to define Oil City for many years,” Oil City blogger John Noel Bartlett wrote on his Web site. “It's time to move on.”