BELLEFONTE, Pa. - Curious townspeople lingered outside the Brockerhoff House early Tuesday morning, sipping coffee, eating breakfast pizza, and trying to digest the incongruity of it all.
"This will soon be gone," said one woman in a red school crossing guard's vest as she aimed her cellphone camera at the Centre County Courthouse, "and I want to make sure I get a picture. Otherwise no one will believe me."
Her lens was focused across Allegheny Street, where the shop windows were elaborately decorated for the holidays, at the media army occupying the courthouse square.
TV reporters navigated carefully but hurriedly through the man-made jungle of klieg lights, wires, cameras, and tripods. State troopers guarded the column-flanked entrances. Little packs of briefcase-toting lawyers buzzed.
An enormous convoy of white satellite trucks surrounded the gold-domed courthouse while high above, adjacent to a faded white moon that loomed over this little county seat town like the eye of God, a lone news helicopter filmed it all.
Santa Claus will be coming to town soon enough. On Tuesday, it was evil's turn.
Perhaps it's stark contrasts like the one on display here Tuesday that make the Jerry Sandusky scandal so peculiarly compelling and disturbing.
Malevolence and innocence, reputation and reality, the sunny image of Happy Valley and the horrors alleged in basements and shower stalls, all have been juxtaposed in the five-plus weeks since news of this child sexual-abuse case broke.
And nowhere were those contradictions more evident than in Bellefonte - "Pennsylvania's Victorian Secret" - where the bizarre atmosphere on a crisp and lovely December morning brought to mind both Norman Rockwell and Norman Bates.
It's difficult to imagine a more unlikely setting for so sordid a criminal case than this picturesque community of 6,100 residents, just 12 miles northeast of State College.
Situated in a picturesque Allegheny Mountain valley, Bellefonte's 19th Century charm radiates in every direction from its courthouse square.
From a vantage point on Reservoir Hill, as smoke rose from chimneys below and the blue skies and green hills provided a natural frame, Bellefonte seemed to be auditioning for a Christmas card.
Shopkeepers peered out at the otherworldly scene, and some invited chilled reporters inside on this 23-degree morning. Parked cars lined every street.
At Brother's Pizza, the day began at 7 instead of 11, and the pizza was topped with eggs and bacon instead of mozzarella. Dairy Queen was open for business at dawn. JJE's Guns and the Hotel Dode Bottle Shop bar were not.
Some of the reporters who rolled in here for Sandusky's preliminary hearing tweeted, with puffs of white steam emanating from their lungs like Vatican signals, as they walked the typically quiet streets.
So eager were they for the 9 a.m. proceedings to begin that they seemed oblivious to the town's charms, its gingerbread architecture and history.
Five Pennsylvania governors lived here, and one, Andrew Curtin, is remembered with a courthouse-square statue that on this day was surrounded by cameras and cameramen.
Curiously, Beaver Stadium, home of a Penn State football program roiled by the Sandusky affair, abuts Curtin Road.
Joe Paterno lives just off Curtin Road, too.
And as Sandusky entered the courthouse Tuesday, Paterno, the old coach - a week shy of his 85th birthday - was in a nearby hospital, his health problems, not to mention his reputation, awaiting rehabilitation.
The palpable anticipation for the day's proceedings arrived with the dawn. After five-plus weeks of unthinkable events, horrid allegations, and anonymously sourced reports, we were finally going to hear from Sandusky and his accusers.
Or so we all thought.
Instead, in a proceeding that was as maddeningly abrupt as one of those heavyweight title fights in Mike Tyson's heyday, Sandusky waived his hearing.
The media soon waved goodbye, too.
You could almost hear the air whooshing out of the assembled masses as reporters rushed to their cameras to deliver the nonnews, or typed madly on their cellphones.
Soon, the trucks were rolling out along Routes 150, 144, and 220. The square eventually emptied. Parking spots were vacated. Reporters paused for lunch at the Diamond Deli.
It looks now like there will be some sort of plea bargain, and that neither Sandusky nor those he allegedly abused will ever testify inside this ancient courthouse.
On Friday, in Harrisburg, Penn State's on-leave athletic director Tim Curley and retired administrator Gary Schultz will have their preliminary hearings.
By then, Sandusky will again be a prisoner in his house. Paterno could be out of the hospital and back in his. The accusers will have scattered.
The media circus, though, will just move 100 miles or so to the south, setting up its video village outside another Pennsylvania courthouse, this one Dauphin County's.
And life here in Bellefonte, which until early November seemed impossibly simple, will go on.
It won't ever be the same, of course, but it will go on.