Unmasking Halloween's Commercial Goblins

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-October, business is brisk in Aisle 5A of a suburban Walgreens drugstore. This is the Halloween decorations aisle - not to be confused with the Halloween candy aisle (5B) or the Halloween costume aisle, labeled the Boo-tique.

As clusters of parents and children survey shelves piled high with orange and black products, one boy spots a ghoulish "bleeding hand" novelty candle, priced at $2.49.

"Oh, cool!" he exclaims. "Let's get it."

"No," his mother replies. "We don't need that."

"But Mom...," he pleads, as his brother eyes a "Scary Skull" ($14.95). The children wheedle and coax, and soon the mother sighs and agrees.

Nearby, another woman and her elementary-school son are considering everything from pumpkin-shaped sidewalk yard lights ($12.99) and skeleton door covers ($1.99) to Halloween balloons (79 cents), outdoor graveyard scenes ($3.99), and pumpkin carving kits ($4.99).

"It's his first Halloween party," the mother says to another customer, as if to explain the bounty of holiday products filling her basket.

Move over, Christmas. Make way for the latest megaholiday. Halloween, once a modest celebration requiring little more than a pumpkin and a simple costume and mask, has become a multibillion-dollar industry. In a season of trick-or-treat, the biggest tricksters this year are not children but clever marketeers, creating needs we didn't know we had for products no one could have imagined a few years ago.

A Walgreens flyer this week features no fewer than nine pages of Halloween products labeled "Halloween Values You Need," including bat-motif socks, ghost jewelry, tree masks, and wind streamers. Even Marshall Field's flagship store in Chicago has carved out, if you'll pardon the pun, an entire department for pumpkin-motif merchandise.

This latest form of rampant consumerism, this pressure to observe ever-more-complicated holidays, brings home two sobering facts of parenting, 1990s-style: First, the harder parents work to earn money to support their families, the more temptations exist to fritter away that money on inconsequentials. And second, the less free time busy parents have, the more demands they find being placed on that time. Decorating the house inside and out for Christmas is one thing. But for Halloween? Thanks, but no.

Beyond time and money, these holiday gimmicks and fads also steal space, cluttering attics before they land in the trash or the next yard sale.

No wonder what is called the simplicity movement is gaining momentum. Elaine St. James, the author of bestsellers on how to scale down and enjoy life more, sums up the challenge in "Living the Simple Life."

She writes, "When you look at the buying habits that have taken hold in our culture over the past 30 years or so, you can see that we made the decision somewhere along the line to work longer hours so we could acquire more things. We've exchanged our leisure time for stuff." She adds, "It hasn't been a good trade-off. Not for us, not for our children, not for the environment."

Instead, Ms. St. James encourages parents to devise free or low-cost activities with children. As for shopping trips, she advises telling children what they will be allowed to buy, if anything, before going into the store, and then sticking to that decision.

Any parent who has ever burned the midnight oil in late October, making Halloween costumes or baking jack-o'-lantern cookies for a school party, knows the demands - and pleasures - of the holiday.

But as the celebration escalates, culture-watchers can only wonder: Will Halloween gift-giving be next? And will grandparents of the future tell grandchildren wistful stories about the "old-fashioned" Halloweens of their youth, when they carved pumpkins with only a paring knife, not a special kit, and went trick-or-treating in a simple ghost costume made from an old sheet?

Whatever the future of this holiday, one thing is sure: The commercial goblins'll getcha if you don't watch out.

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