HERE'S A SCARY HALLOWEEN STORY: A mysterious disease is attacking the symbol of the holiday--the pumpkin. For the second year in a row, the plague is striking pumpkins across New York, turning plant leaves yellow and causing the fruit to rot. The condition has already destroyed 700 acres of pumpkin fields and has been spotted in cucumbers and squashes as well.

Botanists at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., have yet to come up with the cause of the blight. When it was first discovered a year ago, they thought it was yellow vine disease, a scourge that caused substantial damage to watermelons in Oklahoma and Texas in 1991. Lab experiments, however, ruled that out. Now they suspect some new bacterium. Thomas A. Zitter, a plant pathology professor who heads the investigating team, says the microbe most likely spends the winter in an insect body, a weed, or a shrub.

Once unleashed, the blight turns into the Freddie Kruger of the pumpkin patch. When Zitter first spotted the disease in 1997, only a few pumpkin fields in one county were affected. This year, crops in five counties suffered damage, and Zitter expects the disease soon to spread to neighboring states--haunting pumpkin farmers everywhere.

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