Halloween is the new Christmas.
It's growing faster, too, in terms of consumer spending. Christmas sales will be 4.5% higher this year than last, experts predict, while sales of Halloween goods will be up 5.4%. The National Retail Federation reckons that Americans will pay a record $3 billion-plus this season on hairy spiders, blowup Draculas and plastic maggots that glow in the dark.
Sound spooky? Kathy Crawford thinks so, but in a good way. She's a manager at the Halloween Club, a store open year-round in Santa Fe Springs that sells an unnerving array of pricey props, including a skeleton impaled on a pointed post, a fake dog that lunges from its doghouse as if to rip your head off and an "industrial wood chopper" with legs poking out one end and "flesh" and "blood" dripping from the other that goes for $2,950.
"Look at the prices -- people buy this stuff," said Crawford, who is greeted by waiting customers when she shows up for work on weekends. "This year, they're going all-out."
Increasingly, adults have been elbowing children out of the way to claim the creepiest holiday as their own. The trend will be pushed to the limit this Halloween because it falls on a Sunday, so the partying can start on Friday and continue throughout the weekend.
Nearly 60% of Americans will participate in the holiday this year and 56% of them will don costumes, according to a poll conducted by shopping center owner Macerich Co. in Santa Monica. Some 21% of the respondents said they planned to outfit their pets.
"It's not one night out of the week anymore," said Scott Krugman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation, the industry's largest trade group. "It's like a monthlong celebration."
Halloween, which started out centuries ago as a festival for the dead, has reinvented itself over the years in the U.S. In the early 1800s, it revolved around homey games and roasting nuts. By the end of that century, young people were taking the celebration into the streets, soaping windows and twisting street signs.
In the 1900s, schools, rotary clubs and philanthropic organizations joined forces to try to instill some discipline. "It seemed as though it was tame by the late '40s and '50s, when trick-or-treating began," said Nick Rogers, a professor of history at York University in Toronto and author of "Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night."
Then adults began to see new opportunities for revelry, devising their own ways of celebrating, and decorating. "What you've got by the 1970s or '80s is a more diverse Halloween," Rogers said, "and a more commercial one."
Now Halloween is a consuming free-for-all fueled by marketing and, according to social scientists, a desire to escape and the urge to have fun. Especially since Sept. 11, 2001, it has for some become a way to take a sledgehammer to pervasive fears about terrorism.
"The culture has lived with the threat of terror over the last few years and I think Halloween, in that context, may really have taken on greater significance," said Glen Sparks, a communications professor at Purdue University who studies people's reaction to horrific images. "It's a holiday that gives people a chance to control the things that they are scared of."
Barbara Sky has it down to a science. The 56-year-old construction company owner decorates her home in San Bernardino to the hilt every October and invites as many as 100 children, and some adults, to celebrate. Her frontyard is filled with pumpkins, a Frankenstein's monster, an animated witch and a slew of skeletons, and the backyard is a cemetery littered with coffins and hands and feet crawling up from the earth.
Initially, Sky spent about $1,000 a year as she collected props and decorations, but she's since pared her annual expenditure to less than half that. "The initial shock's over, because you use the same things" every year, she said.
For some Americans, Halloween outlays of hundreds of dollars aren't out of this world. And the experts say they're getting more for their money. The rising demand for life-size witches, mummies and skeleton brides holding dead bouquets means manufacturers are making more of them -- usually in other countries -- which has caused the prices to drop. Morris Costumes Inc. in Charlotte, N.C., began shipping "affordable" coffins this year, for $74.95, Vice President Amy Morris said. On the other hand, it also sells a "Creepy the Clown" for $6,500.
"Halloween has just exploded," said Babloo Sawhney, vice president of First Imperial Trading Inc. in City of Commerce, which ships to 3,000 retailers throughout the country and also owns the Halloween Club. "More and more consumers want bigger props at better value."
It's all good news for merchants for whom Halloween has become an increasingly important bridge between the crucial back-to-school and Christmas shopping seasons. Specialty stores are sharing the benefits with a wide range of others, including discounters, drugstores, grocers and even hardware stores.
The Orchard Supply Hardware chain expects sales of Halloween goods to increase 25% this season. Its Pasadena outlet ordered some 50 "grim reapers" -- an ugly face perched atop a black cloak that goes for $21.99 -- and sold out by the end of September.
"People really get into Halloween," said Kathy Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the hardware chain. "They just keep adding to the collection, kind of like you do with Christmas; you keep adding to your ornaments, and the scarier the better."
Chris Sarvis surveyed costumes recently at the seasonal store Halloween Illusions in Westminster. The 26-year-old safety consultant looked serious as he pondered becoming a pirate, having been a cowboy, a wizard and a Mormon missionary on previous Halloweens.
Adults dress up to "reclaim a portion of our childhood, if just for a few hours," the Huntington Beach resident said. Or, he added with a slight smile, "It might just be an excuse to find a place and have a good time."