Behold Halloween, the Frankenstein's monster of American holidays. Cobbled together from spare parts of other traditions (the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, Great Britain's Guy Fawkes Night and All Saints' Day among them), it has grown to become the second-largest holiday in the United States in dollars spent, behind only Christmas.
Despite the grim economic climate and predictions that Americans will cut back their Halloween spending by 15% this year, the National Retail Federation estimates that we still plan to shell out somewhere in the ballpark of $4.75 billion for fake blood, pumpkin cookie cutters, fog machines, luminarias, "come dressed as your inner self parties" and assorted sweet treats.
The single biggest spending category, for the fourth straight year, according to the federation's 2009 study, is the $1.75 billion Americans plan to drop on costumes for adults, children and pets.
So, how did marking the change of seasons from summer to fall and celebration of the harvest become the kind of freewheeling nationwide Mardi Gras that makes otherwise normal adults kick back in office cubicles kitted out as the Bee Girl from Blind Melon's "No Rain" video or the Pillsbury Doughboy while their kids go banging on doors demanding candy from strangers on the last day of October?
David J. Skal, author of "Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween," suggests we start with a brief history lesson.
"Adult costume parties on Halloween first [became] popular during the 1920s, and the term 'trick or treat' only appeared at the beginning of World War II," Skal says.
And the growing fascination with costumes?
"America has always celebrated the idea that you can grow up to be anything you want," Skal says, adding that children of the 1950s and 1960s popularized that aspect of the holiday and then dragged it along with them as they grew into adulthood.
"In the last few decades, the Halloween machine has been especially driven by the boomers," he writes, "a generation noted for a marked reluctance to give up the things of childhood."
But baby boomer bacchanalia is only part of the equation. It has also grown into a kind of unofficial, secular kickoff to a two-month-long series of holiday celebrations that won't truly subside until the calendar flips over to the new year
"What makes it different, from, say, Christmas or Hanukkah is that while it may have religious roots, it's become this nonreligious holiday," says Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist, behavior expert and associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "And, on the societal level, short of Mardi Gras, there's not really another occasion on the calendar that allows us to wear a costume -- it's the one time all year where that abnormal behavior is the norm, and it gives us an excuse to relive our childhood."
Klapow says that escape from the bonds of adulthood, if just for an evening, is even more important to people in times of economic and societal turmoil.
"It's one of the simple pleasures you associate with [childhood] -- like eating an ice cream cone or riding on a merry-go-round."
But along those lines, Klapow cautions against trying to read too much into someone's costume choice.
"Sure, it's an opportunity to be a person we wouldn't normally be," he says. "But people dress up in costumes for all kinds of reasons." In other words, the sexy cheerleader, sexy nurse or sexy devil isn't necessarily telegraphing her wanton desires, and the guy from accounting with the silver Bernie Madoff mane or the record producer pretending to be a Phil Spector specter is not trying to send you a message either.
"Rather than make an assumption, use the costume as a conversation starter to find out the reason," Klapow counsels. "Chances are anyone who's wearing a costume wants to be asked."
And what will Americans be spending nearly $2 billion on for this year's one-night dress-up derby? Skal says zombies show no signs of slowing down.
"I expect there will be a lot of hybrid costumes," he says. "The most obvious will be armies of Michael Jacksons stumbling back from the grave, but I look forward to seeing a lot of other celebrity zombies. Sarah Palin would make an especially good one."
Kathy Grannis, spokeswoman for the retail federation, said pop culture is always a huge driver of Halloween costumes, noting that last week's survey of retailers found Jackson ("red jackets, fedoras and shiny white gloves") and Kate Gosselin wigs to be particularly popular -- "in addition to anything vampire," she noted. "Thanks to 'Twilight.' "
But on Oct. 16, just one day after a silver, saucer-shaped, helium-filled UFO took flight over Ft. Collins, Colo., Grannis found herself making a very strange, and very sudden, addendum to her list.
"A co-worker came into my office and said they'd heard people were already buying the things to make the costume," she explained. "And really, I don't think this has been off the TV since it happened."
So, mixed in with the Michaels, the Madoffs, the probable Palins and the pants-less Lettermans, expect to see a floating flotilla of silver Mylar freshly untethered from the headlines:
The "Balloon Boy" costume.
At last, the perfect costume to send to the party while you hole up in the attic with a good book.