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Diana dies.

Marv Albert reveals.

A sheep is cloned.

A cult meets a comet.

For one group of longtime friends, 1997 has been a bumper-crop year for Halloween costumes. Not satisfied to disguise themselves as happy hobos, French maids -- or even such recent cliches as the pregnant nun or the man in drag -- they view Oct. 31 as their once-a-year license to go to the extremes of audacity.

You've heard of that rural pastime, cow tipping?

This is a night of sacred-cow tipping.

They've done it year after year. In 1995, the year Marv Levy was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a guest arrived as the coach, two pendulous balloons hanging below his belt. He had competition: Another was the sick gland itself. In 1982, a month after a car crash took her life, Princess Grace graced the event, wearing a sparkly tiara, a rhinestone necklace -- and a steering wheel around her neck.

"When Mother Teresa died, I'm ashamed to admit, I had more than a few messages on my machine saying, 'Finally: The moment you've been waiting for,' " confesses Cathleen Carter, host of the 17-year-old party.

Like "a dish to pass" at tamer functions, shocking one's neighbor at her soiree is expected. The most offensive costume wins a bottle of Thunderbird at night's end.

"When people tell you, 'God -- that's really sick,' it's a compliment," says longtime guest Mark Shechner, who once came carrying a real rifle and a sign that read, "If they fire you, fire them." He was a postal worker.

But the party did not form merely to push the envelope. In its own quiet way, it's waging war on a holiday that has grown as soft as a 3-month-old pumpkin.

Halloween's pagan origins, the time the gates of the dead opened and the spirits walked among the living, got lost in a bag of fun-size Snickers a long time ago.

"Halloween has turned into such a mild event," says James P. Farrelly, an English professor at the University of Dayton. "It's been turned into a collection of treats."

But still, many office managers around town won't hang so much as a cardboard black cat from the ceiling, for fear of offending religious groups who view the holiday as a glorification of witchcraft.

Children's costumes are driven by Disney instead of their own imaginations. For safety, parties at churches and community centers have taken the place of late-night doorbell ringing. Those kids who do trick-or-treat can have their goodies X-rayed at hospitals, or undergo parental inspection.

And as kids co-opt Halloween, parents lurk in the shadows. The thought of having to tax their creativity for a one-night get-up makes them shiver more than "A Nightmare on Elm Street" ever could. They're the best candidates for a little greasepaint escape from the constraints of their 9-to-5 world, but most don't take advantage of the opportunity.

On this, the third-biggest weekend of the year to go out -- surpassed only by New Year's and Thanksgiving eves -- they play it safe.

"What can I go as that doesn't require a lot of work?" is the question Mark Kohan asks himself. The adults-only party he attends every year is a form of "emotional bartering."

"It's a trade-off. They want us to dress up; we want to use their grass cutter. So we go."

Diane Elia scrutinizes her closet every year, typically capitalizing on the abundance of black clothes she owns for a costume idea -- a cat burglar, for example.

Lawyer Mike Tahari says he'll accompany his kids as they trick-or-treat. But in the final analysis, he says, this is a kids' holiday. A local bar owner says he'll probably dress up, again this year, as a nun.

But there are also those who want it both ways, who want to rummage sticky-fingered through their children's plastic bags and enjoy the season in a strictly adult way.

Take Jim Rebholz. The corporate caterer is going to dress as Groucho Marx when he takes his son around this evening.

But he has a much different disguise planned for Ms. Carter's party.

Like many costumes, this one can't be thoroughly described in a newspaper -- much less shown in a photograph. But suffice it to say that he has dubbed himself "New York's Newest Millionaire," and a gold-painted plunger is part of the ensemble.

"After the Oklahoma City bombing, which was so tragic you thought, who would think that you could poke fun of it?" Rebholz says, "I was all the leftover (body) parts. Of course, those parts didn't exist, so I felt safe."

But dress ethics are a squishy thing, especially at a party whose dress code is "Taboo, but within reason."

So if you assume that a guy who can parody Oklahoma City or the Brooklyn police department brutality scandal would don a Diana wig without thinking twice about it, you've assumed wrong.

"I wouldn't go near her, though I know some people who are," Rebholz says piously.

"Mother Teresa? Definitely. She lived her life. But personally, I loved Diana so much, and I thought (her death) was really awful. I thought of coming as a French chauffeur and being this drunk slob, but then I changed my mind."

He's not the only one approaching Diana with kid gloves on Halloween.

Karen Noe, assistant manager of George and Co., has fielded some requests for Diana masks. But she didn't stock up -- or even research where she might find them.

"I don't feel it's right," she says.

"Maybe next year."

Ms. Carter was 33 when she threw her party, pregnant with her only child. Now her daughter is applying to college. She and her friends have gone through various life changes: kid problems, divorces, career switches, sickness.

Yet no one talks about heavy stuff on Halloween, she says.

"This gives people respite from talking about what pills they're taking, or talking about their jobs -- or their tumors," she says. "And you don't get any small talk. You know how you go to those parties where everyone asks what you're up to, but no one is really interested in the answer? But you have to answer, because you were asked, so you both stand around bored.

"That never happens here."

Let's face it: When your blue-striped dish towel is doubling as Mother Teresa's veil, shop talk doesn't fly. And if you don an apron, rub a little blush on your cheeks and place a crown of thorns on your head -- "Auntie Christ," get it? -- you can't dwell on your goiter.

You'd seem ridiculous.

"We're all so busy trying to show people how mature and responsible we are," points out Ms. Carter, a psychologist.

"We're rushing to be everywhere on time, to be dressed appropriately -- to do everything appropriately as an adult.

"So here people have a chance to release their creativity and express a side of themselves that they don't at work."

And creativity among adults often manifests itself in weird ways. A few years ago, a woman dressed herself as a "smorgasbroad," spending roughly $70 at the grocery store to cover her body with melons and other produce. One of her friends came as Buffalo News food critic Janice Okun.

The year Nicole Brown Simpson was killed, Jorge and Sarah Guitart disguised themselves as "The Real Killers."

In 1985, the year the Palestine Liberation Organization shot a 69-year-old man in a wheelchair and dumped him off the Achille Lauro cruise ship, two guests arrived as the victim, one covered in seaweed and other with sea life attached to his body.

"It was poor taste, but this is an evening where so much is suspended that is bad taste," says one of the costume judges, David Gerber. "There's great acceptance of almost anything and everything. One can say and do things one would normally not be able to.

"Most of the people at the party fall into two categories," he continues. "They are academics and psychologists, which are both very discursive and performance-oriented occupations. It gives them a chance to extend the realm of their performance."

By a lot. Especially in 1997. This was the year Pol Pot spoke. And two leaders named Bo and Peep led cult members in low-grade Nikes to a comet.

"My wife always wants me to do something with her, but I never want to," says the party's emcee, Tony Lewis.

"What I'm expressing is inside me. It's inside my psyche. It's less social, and it's more psychological.

"And for me, this is an opportunity. This is the one time in the year when you can really go as far as you want to, if you're at the right party.

"If you're at a party where there are a lot of good fairies, you're in trouble."

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