Halloween 2004

Editorial Notebook

October 16, 2004|By Peter Jensen

FROM A HAUNTED retail grave in Timonium (a defunct Ames store, actually), rises a frightening seasonal invader: a Halloween superstore.

Thousands upon thousands of square feet of rubber masks, decapitated heads, skeletons and spooks. In its day, the Ames housewares department didn't stock as much cutlery (and it wasn't usually pre-bloodied). Axes, swords, knives. There's a selection of witches' brooms for the discriminating Wiccan and enough tombstones to make any gravedigger feel right at home, particularly if he's accustomed to tombstones that periodically play an electronically-recorded moan.

This is the state of Halloween in 2004: robust. As if the presidential election wasn't horrifying enough, now come these superstores, these Wal-Marts of terror. Like the one in Timonium, they rise from the ashes of suburban shopping center vacancies, then melt away in November.

"All sales final," the store's posted handmade signs warn. One is inclined to believe in that particular fright. Let your Visa card beware.

Halloween-related retail sales are growing faster than those around Christmas, retailers claim. Consumers will spend $3.12 billion on scary stuff this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That's a lot of rubber eyeballs and plastic skulls. American trick-or-treating is about a half-century old, built on the much older traditions of festivals for the dead.

But the holiday's recent growth is not coming from the kids; it's coming from Mom and Dad and their fellow adults dressing up, decorating their homes and having themselves a helluva good time. Halloween isn't just the second-biggest decorating season behind Christmas (Eat pumpkin, Easter Bunny), it's the third-biggest party day behind New Year's Eve and the Super Bowl.

And how are the adults dressing? Turns out the in-look is scary -- and sexy. Think of it as the day the zombies took over a Hooters franchise. Black-draped serial killers are in, but so are fishnet stockings and cleavage. Go figure. Somebody put the vamp back in vampire this season. Let's see, a culture happily invested in Satanism, hypersexuality and commercial excess -- no, no chance some fundamentalist religious zealots will hate us with a passion, right?

Maybe laughing at our fears is a healthy way to cope with the post-9/11 world. Severed limbs are one thing, but nobody seems to stock the really scary stuff like yellow cake or spent fuel rods. Too real. What we yearn for are simple diversions, the equivalent of cheesy horror films. Remember police and firefighter costumes were all the rage several Halloweens ago? No longer. Like their parents, the kids would rather be witches and warlocks, vampires and wizards, superheroes and supervillains. Better to recall the monsters under the bed than the ones on the evening news.

Even with all the discounters, Halloween is not an inexpensive, if you'll pardon the expression, undertaking. The average adult costume is in the $50 range and they can run much higher. Spirit, the Halloween superstore in Timonium (one of eight locations in Maryland and about 250 nationwide), carries some that are $159.99. For that kind of money, a customer might expect to get married in these get-ups -- and here's a really terrifying thought -- no doubt some do.

As holidays go, Halloween isn't all bad. The extended family doesn't show up. Sure, there'll be some vandalism (roughly equivalent to the pillaging that accompanies major sports championships), but all those stories about sadists who stuff razor blades in candy are wildly overstated. Like it or not, the season is upon us. Time to blow up your inflatable Frankenstein, set out the motorized creeping hand and join in.

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