Annual scarefest means big business for some

Last updated: October 26. 2013 10:45PM - 2285 Views
By - mguydish@timesleader.com

The front yard of this Kingston home is sure to give anyone a fright.
The front yard of this Kingston home is sure to give anyone a fright.
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Halloween is BIG. Big like a sumo wrestler ($35 at Party City). Big like a Wookie ($500 “supreme edition” at Spirit Halloween).

Halloween is GROWING. Growing faster than your kids outpace last year’s costumes, growing like Bruce Banner when you get him angry enough to turn into the Hulk ($16 kid’s costume at Target).

Halloween is EVERYWHERE. It pops up in seasonal costume stores like Halloween City and Spirit Halloween. It spills out of aisles in mini-marts, drug stores and big box mega chains. It condenses into high-octane doses of scary at haunted houses. It sprawls across lawns bedecked with skeletons, zombies and chainsaw maniacs. It’s in your neighborhood … It’s on your sidewalk … it’s coming up the porch steps … it’s at your FRONT DOOR!

But why? Why have Americans boosted spending on Halloween 34 percent in just three years ($5.7 billion in 2010 to a projected $7.6 billion this year). Why has pumpkin production in the U.S. shot up from 36,900 acres in 2001 to 47,800 acres in 2012? (Local farmer Larry O’Malia: “I can’t grow enough!”)

Why do nearly 43 percent of people bite off the white top of candy corn first?

These questions are HARD. Hard like the man of steel ($50 deluxe, $260 “grand heritage” at costumesupercenter.com) Hard like Iron Man’s suit ($18 to $230, same place). Hard like the knock on your door as Monster High monsters, Despicable Me minions and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (this year’s top selling kid’s costumes at Party City in Wilkes-Barre Township) cajole you into surrendering treats and sweets.

(Chocolate is by far the most popular candy — duh — and 64 percent of adults pick their personal favorite when buying treats to dispense on Halloween — double duh. Less duh-ish: 50 percent of those giving will dole out two pieces per trick or treater, while 22 percent will allot 3 per tot. All this comes courtesy of the National Confectioner’s Association, the sweetest association in the world).

Answering such questions requires serious digging. And this being Halloween, don’t expect a lot of logic. Many of the responses are about as rational as, well, zombies (“Must … eat … brains!”).

Keeping things “real”

You’ve got your Halloween lifers like Rick Markham, the project coordinator at Gravestone Manor, one of the area’s more unusual haunted houses. Gravestone doesn’t just jump out at you in scream-inducing costumes (“there isn’t a single chainsaw,” Markham notes with a hint of pride). It tells a tale as visitors stop in room after room for mini-plays, Edgar Allen Poe style.

Markham’s been doing this for decades. “I built my first haunted house when I was eight in my mom’s basement and charged 10 cents admission,” he said. He dimmed the lights and hung sheets to create different “rooms,” all surrounding a central “control room” where an assistant, who could tell where a visitor was, yanked ropes with labels describing what effect each create through pulleys to the rooms — bottles jumping off a shelf, for example.

“By the time I was 12 my biggest shopping day was the day after Halloween,” Markham said, “because I could buy all the stuff I needed at half price.”

Markham never outgrew the penchant for haunted haunts. As an adult he decorated his yard and made part of his home into spook central for trick or treaters. “I’d invite them into the living room and have things like a vampire coming out of a casket, or a little box by the wall with an arm coming out with the candy tray.”

For the last 15 years he’s channeled his inner ghoul into Gravestone, which raises money for The United Way. It’s a project that includes months of part-time script writing beginning in February with 12 people relaying ideas via email, going into high gear from August to November.

Gravestone started in the cafeteria at Sallie Mae headquarters in Wilkes-Barre, where Markham works. It drew about 1,000 people the first year. It expanded and now has a permanent home in the Trion warehouse in Plains Township, where it welcomes about 5,000 visitors annually. The play aspect, requiring visitors to pause and ponder, limits audience size.

Why the growth?

“I don’t know, scientifically,” Markham said. “There’s a rise in popularity of role playing games, movies and TV, with a lot of emphasis on vampires like in (HBO’s) True Blood and zombies in (AMC’s) Walking Dead.”

But that’s all two-dimensional, viewed on a screen. Haunted houses like Gravestone give people “a place where you can turn off the screens, and we drop you into real world with real people and three-dimensions.”

For kids and community

Then there are folk like Cheryl Gregory, who freely admits indifference to Halloween until her son got into it. Now she annually fills the yard and porch of her Kingston home with scores of mannequins and props that, one passing mail carrier conceded “Scares the bejeebers out of me.”

“Growing up, my son was always fascinated with characters that were creepy and scary,” Gregory recalled. So she started setting up little displays. “It just progressed more and more.”

The son is off to college in Utah, but the tradition keeps expanding, so much so that ““it’s a neighborhood thing now,” Gregory, 51, said. Not only are other yards sprouting decorations, on the night of trick or treating “we have hot dogs and popcorn for the adults.”

The display has become so huge Gregory dedicates one side of a two-stall garage to storage. Her husband gets the other side, using it for the lawn mower and other equipment. “The cars don’t go in the garage,” Gregory chuckled.

So what started out as a tradition to please her son morphed into a community event, but Gregory confesses to a selfish reason for being such a Hallow-fiend.

“I especially like the little kids’ reactions,” she said. “They are so impressed. It’s just great to see that they get into it so much.”

Personal favorites in her menagerie of fright?

“I really like my Freddy Krueger and the chainsaw massacre,” Gregory said. “When my son was growing up, he was into them so much he would keep them in his bedroom year-round.”

Sounds, um, creepy.

Money behind the masks

The reasons individuals have embraced Halloween to the tune of $7 billion a year and growing are inevitably personal. The reasons our nation has collectively turbo-charged what was once viewed as a kid’s minor holiday?

For starters, the costumes have gotten way cooler, way cheaper and way more diverse, according to Charles Taylor, an online marketer at costumesupercenter.com.

“I remember begging my parents for a Fonzie (of “Happy Days” fame) costume, and a friend of mine got one,” Taylor reminisced “It was a plastic mask with a little rubber band and basically a plastic bag that you wore over your body with a print of Fonzie’s outfit. It was about as cheesy as you could get, and I don’t blame my parents for not buying it.”

By comparison, Taylor said, the quality of costumes has soared while the price has plummeted, so much so that “as a culture, we’ve gotten to where we’ll spend the money.”

Taylor recounted his own son’s request to be Indiana Jones after watching the movies a few months ago. “When I was a kid that meant we would have to go to the store and find clothing and make our own costume. But that’s a lot of work and a lot of running around.”

Now, thanks to the popularity and profitability of licensing rights to make such costumes (Indiana Jones children’s costume at Taylor’s website: $23), parents can and do go to one of the superstores or online and find pretty much anything kids want.

“It’s just a lot easier to spend the $25,” Taylor said.

For proof of that trend, look no further than the “Costume wall” at Party City in Wilkes-Barre Township Commons. Toni Auker’s daughters Ava and Olivia gravitated toward the pictures of witch garb, and had enough choices to clothe a coven. Olivia picked the purple-accented Potion Witch while Ava opted for the all-ebon Witchy Witch, which it turned out was out of stock — news discovered and conveyed, incidentall, by a clerk dressed as an Oktober Beerfest wench complete with oversized mug of lager.

No problem. Two pictures away on the costume wall, the Darling Witch’s pink trim caught Ava’s eye.

Toni marveled at the selection. “When I was a kid we had nothing like this,” she said. “I made my own costume. (Three-month-old Gabriella, incidentally, may end up in a home-made sheep costume — though the beer-wench clerk started steering Toni to infant costumes).

The market has also boomed for adult outfits, Taylor said, so much so that grown up costumes sell almost as well as kiddie clothes. And adults are often willing to fork over a small fortune for anauthentic look. Top of the line at costumesupercenter.com: A Star Wars Storm Trooper Supreme Edition for $1,000. Bounty hunter Boba Fett isn’t much cheaper: $850.

Does it fly like the one in the movies?

“At that price,” Taylor conceded, “it should.”

Religion in disguise?

Halloween, of course, is a contraction of “All Hallow’s Eve,” the night before the Catholic self-explanatory “Feast of All Saints.” But one reason for its surge in popularity may be that, unlike similar holidays, Halloween’s faith-based component is and arguably always has been easily detached from the celebration.

“I think one advantage Halloween has over many of our other holidays is that you can drop the religious element more easily,” University of Scranton history professor Robert Shaffern speculated. “That means more people can enjoy it than might be the case with Christmas or Easter.”

The dominant origin story puts the roots of Halloween in an ancient Celtic pagan festival known as Samhain. “In the old days, folks believed there were spirits everywhere,” Shaffern explained. “Some were good, some were evil, many were just mischievous. As far as Halloween was concerned, the idea was that at harvest time the spirits got a bit more active.”

Thus the tradition of dressing up like ghosts and such. “One of the ways of dealing with people we don’t like, dead or undead, is to make fun of them,” Shaffern said, adding that a second school of thought dismisses the Celtic link as unproven and even doubtful thanks to the curious fact that all this dressing up and grubbing for free treats is a relatively recent, and very American, development.

“My guess is that we are better at secularizing holidays than the Europeans,” Shaffern said. “If a religious holiday loses it’s religion there, it just dies. Here we manage to secularize a holiday without losing our participation in it.”

Halloween’s huge retail increase in the last decade or so — tripled from 2.5 billion in 1997, according to the National Retail Federation — may have occurred because celebration is still a relatively affordable.

“It’s not that expensive compared to Christmas,” Misericordia University Business Department Chair Tim Kearney noted. “Candy and costumes for kids isn’t as expensive as Christmas gifts.”

It’s also a holiday that doesn’t generate much negative response. “I suppose economists think that people feel it’s just a fun splurge.” Kearney added.

Halloween has grown so fast that some reports claim it is now the second biggest holiday in the country, behind only the uber-juggernaut known as Christmas, though University of Scranton marketing professor Abhijit Roy warned he could not find concrete information to back that claim up.

His guess as to the popularity boom?

“My take on this is that it gives consumers a chance to express themselves and show their alter identities,” Roy said.

With a pop culture that relentlessly reinvents itself — Taylor, the online marketer, noted “Snooki” costumes from the reality show “Jersey Shore” have been supplanted by “Duck Dynasty” garb (“There’s hope for the human race yet”) — there’s always some new “alter identity” for folks to don.

Roy pointed out one other quirk of Halloween.

“No one has quite figured out the causation, but during presidential elections over the last two decades, the candidate whose masks sold the most for Halloween ended up winning the election.”

OK … in terms of a healthy democracy, that’s creepier than sleeping with Freddy Krueger in your room.

Beyond human comprehension

Escapism … secular accessibility … alter ego opportunities … relative inexpensiveness … community unity … satisfaction in seeing a kid’s eyes light up … savvy marketing … good old American capitalism …

These may all be valid reasons for the Halloween BOOm. But Gravestone’s Markham sees a more metaphysical reason … something that taps into the core of our mortality.

“At Gravestone, we try to celebrate the magic and mystery of Halloween,” Markham said. “It’s at a time of year when everything is dying, but everything is going to be born again. And what happens after you die? That is the biggest mystery.

“One of the great things about Halloween is that, to have ghosts, there has to be life after death.”

Wow … Seriously heavy.

As to why so many people eat the white end of candy corn first (or why we eat the stuff at all) …

Well, some things are too heavy for the human brain to comprehend.

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