These days, there seem to be no such thing as a harmless prank and no tolerance for youthful Mischief Night high jinks.
This year, towns across South Jersey prepared themselves for the night before Halloween with beefed-up police patrols, youth curfews and carefully organized activities designed to keep youths out of trouble.
The precautions seemed to be paying off last night.
In Camden, where one aberrant year of arsons in 1991 has triggered five years of massive community and police patrols, 2,000 residents had signed up to keep watch over city streets and vacant houses. In Palmyra - where 1990 and 1991 saw slashed tires, overturned cars, smashed windows and fires - clowns, music and floats made their way down Broad Street from Riverton as crowds gathered for the borough's annual parade.
As of 10 p.m., police throughout South Jersey reported minor, scattered complaints - eggs thrown at cars, small trash fires, houses bandaged in toilet paper.
In Camden, officials reported six arrests - of three adults and three juveniles - fewer than on an average Wednesday night. By 11 p.m., 17 fires had been reported, including fires at eight abandoned structures. There are about 20 fire calls on an average night in Camden.
In many ways, it was just another Wednesday night. But the preparations that preceded the quiet bespeak the changing tenor of life.
``Halloween is reflective of the changes in society more generally. Twenty years ago, kids were using fists to fight. Now they're using guns,'' said Jack Levin, professor of sociology and director of the Program for the Study of Violence and Conflict, at Northeastern University in Boston.
``It was always a way of riding a roller coaster, feeling scared but not really in danger. Now the danger is very real. The formal response is to limit and monitor our children as much as possible.''
* At 6 p.m., the curfew curtain began dropping across South Jersey, starting in Woodlynne and Lawnside. Meanwhile in Palmyra, Haddonfield and Oaklyn, marching bands and costumed figures were ready to start strolling in Halloween parades.
The Palmyra parade was almost as much fun for Nanci and Thom Piecara as it was for their two children, Brogan, 5, and Tyler, 7. The family worked for months to build their Modern Bride magazine float, on which Brogan, dressed as a bride, rode.
``Times have changed. Things have changed,'' Piecara said. ``Kids used to do a lot of things without parental supervision. I wish some things remained as simple.''
Even as Piecara spoke, a group of teenagers whispered into a pay phone in a nearby shopping center, planning a night of pranks with their friends and moaning about the omnipresence of police.
Palmyra's small-town-flavored parade has been a Mischief Night custom in the borough, sandwiched between Route 73 and the Delaware River, for more than 60 years, since long before Oct. 30 became a night many parents dread.
Now, the Police Department doubles patrols for three days before and after Halloween, and the parade is touted as a way to keep would-be pranksters occupied.
In Camden, Halloween Eve activities began with a whistle and the flair of the Sophisticated Ladies drill team. Dressed in orange and blue, the two dozen steppers danced and delighted onlookers at City Hall Plaza, one of 26 designated muster points.
At 6 p.m., dozens of city residents and police officers began to gather at the muster points - churches, community centers and police substations - for what would be the city's fifth year of Halloween Eve patrols.
The joint community-police patrols, which have grown into a celebration of community pride and spirit, were born out of ashes. In 1991, the skies over Camden glowed red with 133 arsons that swept through the city, destroying 44 buildings, mostly vacant houses, and leaving city residents outraged and alarmed.
The following year, hundreds of residents, armed with flashlights and determination, marched shoulder to shoulder with police officers and squelched the fires.
Mischief Night, now officially renamed Halloween Eve in Camden, has been relatively quiet ever since. In an incident last night apparently unrelated to Mischief Night, an unidentified man was shot to death in South Camden.
Acting Police Chief William J. Hill said a significant number of Camden police officers were to be out on city streets throughout the night. In addition, city officials have asked stores and gas stations not to sell eggs and gasoline to minors.
``To this point, I would say it's been an extremely successful evening,'' Camden Mayor Arnold W. Webster said at a 9:30 p.m. briefing.
``We are not overconfident. We are cautiously optimistic,'' said Fire Chief Kenneth Penn, whose department had 11 engine companies on call. On a normal night, eight pumpers are at the ready.
``I think the community work in the last couple of years has been outstanding,'' Penn said, noting that firefighters handled only seven fires last year.
* At 8 p.m., the second wave of curfews fell into place, sweeping through Washington Township, Woodbury, Barrington, Eastampton, Maple Shade, Lindenwold, Laurel Springs, Pine Hill and Voorhees. In many of the towns, the earlier curfew was in place for several days this week.
In Palmyra, Denise Grace clutched her cairn terrier, Annie, who was disguised as Toto. Grace's pet was part of an ensemble - nine cousins dressed as Wizard of Oz characters - that took first place in the parade's costume contest.
Even as Grace celebrated, she worried about the unknowns of Mischief Night. Two years ago, her car was scratched with keys, and last night, she was concerned about walking the few blocks to her house.
So was Bernadette Teamoh, 16. The parade, Teamoh said, ``just postpones problems for a little while.''
In Camden, tight crews of marchers strode through the crisp autumn night. Many carried small flashlights and wore white T-shirts with green letters boasting, ``My Heart is in Camden.''
Two dozen men from the Soldiers Committee, a citizen watch group inspired by the Million Man March, and the Volunteers of America, a halfway house, trekked from downtown to North Camden.
As they marched, Jonathan Couse, 26, the manager of a check-cashing agency, called out to his troops: ``What are we going to do?''
His fellow volunteers shouted back: ``Represent.''
``What are we going to do?''
As they crossed the streets of North Camden, the group passed others on patrol - one group of students from St. Joseph's University, led by the Rev. Rick Malloy from Holy Name Church, and a convoy of the Camden CB Patrol.
``It used to be about running up and ringing doorbells,'' said Jose Martinez, 29, who works in the accounting office of the Philadelphia Red Cross. ``Now, it's just an excuse to start fires and burn properties.''
However, for a halfway-house graduate who identified himself only as Shakur, 28, Mischief Night has become something else - a chance to redeem himself. ``The majority of us are from here. We helped tear it up. Now we're here to fix it,'' he said.
At Third and Erie Street, a bar employee came out to shake the marchers' hands. ``We love it. We love it. We love it,'' said the man, who identified himself as Alex. ``We appreciate these people, really do.''
* At 10 p.m., the curfew siren sounded over Camden, and the bulk of South Jersey towns, including Franklin Township, Audubon, Delran, Palmyra and Willingboro.
In Camden, officials were exulting over a record number of volunteers. More than 3,000 residents pounded the pavement last night.
There were setbacks, however.
Three of the night's fires struck the last three remaining rowhouses on the 600 block of Washington Street in South Camden, a block recently visited by Gov. Whitman, who decried the number of abandoned structures in the city.
The city Department of Community Affairs had boarded up 100 vacant houses in the weeks before Halloween Eve. Still, Webster said, ``it's impossible to get to all the houses in this city that need to be boarded up.''
``We're doing as much as we can,'' he said.
That was small comfort to Deborah Scott, who fumed after witnessing a house fire at Sixth and Mount Vernon Streets.
``I'm mad as hell because I begged them to board these houses up,'' said Scott, who had been out marching all night, keeping watch over her South Camden neighborhood.
On coming Mischief Nights, Scott said, there would be an easy way to prevent any such fires: ``What they're going to have to do before next year is tear these houses down. I'm just glad nobody got hurt.''