In many ways, the modern-day celebration of Halloween is like the boulder-size pumpkin Paul Fleitz tries to coax from the soil each year on his farm in suburban Oregon as an attention-grabber:
Fun... slightly off-color ....but most of all, BIG.
This year Mr. Fleitz' freak-o-lantern weighed in at 320 pounds, which was half the size of last year's behemoth. But what was lost in girth was made up for in a more normal shape and hue, concedes the farmer.
Halloween is America's fastest-growing holiday with sales of costumes, candy, and party supplies up by three fourths in five years to an expected $5.8 billion in 2010, according to figures from the National Retail Federation.
A record 40 percent of people surveyed by the organization that represents stores and shops plan to don costumes. (Twelve percent will adorn their pets.)
And fully half — a ratio topped only by the Christmas season — intend to deck out their homes and yards for the holiday.
Kyle Rhuland, 4, is dwarfed by an enormous pumpkin at Fleitz Pumpkin Farm in Oregon, Ohio.
In cities across the country, revelers will climb into costumes ranging from the racy to racer Dale Earnhardt, Jr., to join parades and street fairs.
"Halloween has gotten bigger every year," observes Jack Santino, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University who studies the holiday.
"The Baby Boom generation ... decided to keep enjoying the pleasures of Halloween — dressing up, enjoying autumn nights, playing with symbols that are usually taboo, images of death and other threats and social evils," he says. "Plus you can make fun of celebrities and politicians who have feet of clay."
And, as if revelers needed a nudge, the nation's brewers and candy-makers step forward each year with all manner of promotions and factoids to encourage consumption of their products at the holiday.
The 600-member National Confectioners Association points out that the 9 billion kernels of candy corn produced annually are enough to circle the moon 21 times.
It is an interesting fact since that is where many of the kids who discover the candy in their trick-or-treat bags would like to launch it. (People who hate the familiar Halloween sweet have formed three separate groups on the social networking site Facebook.)
Bags of candy line Rite-Aid's shelves.
Trick-or-treating among children remains a major part of the holiday, despite overblown hysteria in the 1970s and 1980s prompted by isolated accounts of adulterated candy around the nation.
Residents of the South Toledo neighborhood adjacent to Walbridge Park typically pass out treats to 500 children annually, says John Irish, a South Toledo resident who sits on the park's advisory board.
Well-tended, densely packed houses built in the 1920s are a beacon not only for trick-or-treaters from the neighborhood but for children from nearby streets marked by abandoned dwellings and poverty, he adds.
"Halloween is the only day we have left where we open our door to strangers," opines Lesley Bannatyne, a Massachusetts author who writes frequently on Halloween.
She sees a variety of reasons for the growth of the holiday. The Internet opened an avenue for Halloween display techies to share ideas about decorations such as ground-hugging fog.
Also, John Carpenter's 1978 smash film Halloween sparked a wave of slasher films and re-cast the holiday in the public's imagination from friendly ghosts to a more frightful theme that appealed to teens and young adults.
In an era when more people identify with alternative cultures, "Halloween opens its arms to alternative cultures," says the author, whose latest book, Halloween Nation, Behind the Scenes of America's Fright Night, is due in February.
Costume Holiday House on Monroe Street sells pop culture masks like characters from the television shows 'The Simpsons' and 'Family Guy' as well as Burger King's royalty.
And at a time when self-expression is at a premium, costume selection allows wearers to express political beliefs, cleverness, creativity, and humor.
While homemade costumes remain popular for all ages, many adult celebrants opt for store-bought outfits with price tags up to $500.
"We have had one of our best years to date," says Gregg Kerns, president of Costume Holiday House stores in Toledo, Fremont, and Columbus. "Customers are shopping earlier and looking for discounts, but are buying more."
Popular costume choices this year include singer Lady Gaga and reality TV stars Snookie (Jersey Shore) and Prince Poppycock (America's Got Talent).
According to the retailers' organization, a third of survey participants plan to give or attend a party.
Party-givers this year include Marty and Kristen Ueberroth-Collins, who, with friends, plan a large party in downtown Toledo.
In past years, when the carpenter and store manager held the party in their three-story Victorian mansion on Robinwood Avenue in Toledo's Old West End, it attracted 100 people and featured a DJ, four kegs of beer, pizza at midnight, and an appropriately-creepy atmosphere that included dozens of decorations and special effects.
"We would be chasing the last people out at 6 in the morning," recalls Mr. Ueberroth-Collins, 40. Since starting the tradition six years ago, he has witnessed the growth in Halloween participation and spirit. No one has to be told to wear a costume as in earlier years.
"Everyone is into it," he says of Halloween. "People like to dress up and have a reason to throw a big party."
Contact Gary Pakulski at:
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