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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Tonight's the night when millions of trick-or-treaters will be knocking on doors seeking candy. A growing trend, though, is changing how some children are now getting their goodies on Halloween. Stephanie Lecci of member station WUWM in Milwaukee has the story.

STEPHANIE LECCI, BYLINE: The parking lot of Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in Beloit, Wisconsin is filled today with dozens of costumed kids hungry for candy at an early Halloween event. But instead of saying trick-or-treat, the princesses and Iron Men are yelling this...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Trunk-or-treat.

LECCI: You heard right - that's trunk-or-treat. Rather than going door-to-door, these kids are going from trunk to trunk. Each of the cars here is decorated with a theme - and the adults can get a tad competitive with their decorations.

PASTOR JASON REED: Oh, look at that. It's Noah's Ark. Ha! You win trunk-or-treat over there. Noah's Ark is awesome.

LECCI: Pastor Jason Reed says his church likes to focus on the fun - rather than freaky - parts of Halloween.

REED: I know a lot of Christian denominations think that Halloween is from the devil, all this and that. For what it's worth, if the kids are going to have some fun making fun of the Devil, then let them, and if they're going to get some candy out of it, wonderful. And if we're going to have fun laughing with them, spectacular.

LECCI: 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.

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. 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 that you don't like.

LECCI: And Bannatyne says trunk-or-treats are a safer alternative than going door-to-door.

BANNATYNE: The biggest danger to children on Halloween night is traffic, and so trunk-or-treating takes that away completely. There are no moving cars, all the cars are parked. And the other thing, you get to control whose car is there, so you know who's giving your children candy.

LECCI: She says that's why the trend is catching on with more than just religious groups. At a Boys and Girls Club in California, in cities in Florida and Iowa, and even police and fire departments in Minnesota, all have participated in trunk-or-treats - as has Ideal School in Milwaukee.

Teacher Jennifer Carter says she'd never heard of trunk-or-treating until a PTA parent got the idea from her church four years ago. Now the annual event allows Carter's students to celebrate Halloween, while being respectful of families that don't.

JENNIFER CARTER: In fact, it's called Trunk-or-Treat Night, it's not called Halloween night. It's not - now, obviously it has many connotations too, but it is held at night, but it is very much done in a respectful way, though, that families are well aware and they do not have to participate, obviously, because it's an afterschool event.

LECCI: Milwaukee parent Fiona Nicolaisen says having her children go door-to-door can be tricky in an urban area, so she prefers this event.

FIONA NICOLAISEN: In Milwaukee here, a lot of the trick-or-treating is during the day and the afternoon and daylight. So trunk-or-treating at night is a nice way for my kids to know what it was like when I used to go out trick-or-treating in the dark.

LECCI: So while millions of doorbells across the country will still be ringing tonight, more and more kids will instead be hitting up decorated car trunks in their search for treats.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Trick or treat!

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Say trick or treat.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Trick or treat.

LECCI: For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Lecci.

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