Kayleigh Swenson doesn't like roller coasters that much, but the seventh-grader couldn't pass up a ride last weekend aboard the gravity-defying Colossus.
She and a friend, joining thousands of other costumed and made-up teens, celebrated the Halloween spirit by scaring themselves silly on the infamous ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain here - which is running backward during the park's "Fright Fest."
It's the season for trick-or-treating, jack-o'-lanterns, and, for a growing number of teens like Kayleigh, theme-park hopping. She and her peers have joined what is fast becoming a teenager's ritual for this holiday - a month-long extravaganza in which young people flock to specially decorated theme parks, a different one every weekend.
The phenomenon is only part of the larger Halloween picture: The "season" is big bucks. Seasonal earnings, estimated to top $4 billion this year, are now second only to Christmas. For the parks, most of which are open only during summer, this is the biggest holiday of the year - and the competition for visitors is fierce.
"It's the only holiday where parks redecorate, adding new attractions, new shows, and parkwide entertainment," says Tim O'Brien, editor of Amusement Business Magazine, a trade publication for theme parks. Because of the cost of rides, he explains, "to have the bragging rights to hang marketing on, they have to go all out for Halloween."
Teens aren't the only ones flocking to the macabre. Adults, too, are participating in record numbers, says Mr. O'Brien.
Fueling the Halloween boom is a large contingent of baby boomers who feel nostalgic for their childhoods - and now have the income to indulge it, says Jack Santino, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and author of a book on Halloween.
Then there's the simple desire to play. "This is the closest thing we have to a national Mardi Gras," he says. "Everyone ... needs to be able to dress up and be crazy for a while."
Part of what makes Halloween distinct - and perhaps one reason businesses feel so free to capitalize on it - is that Oct. 31 is not a religious holiday, nor even a big family event. "From a teen standpoint, Christmas is for families, Halloween is for friends," says Bob Ochsner of Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif.
For theme parks, teens are the definitely the target. Indeed, few parents could be spotted amid the youthful throngs last weekend at Six Flags Magic Mountain. And though Knott's Berry Farm introduced a modest, nonscary children's event, "Camp Spooky," for the daytime park hours, Mr. Ochsner says "our nighttime event is for teens and up." The same PG-13 rating holds for virtually every major theme-park Halloween event.
The parks say they are only feeding a demand. For 17 days in October, Knott's Berry Farm closes at 5:30 p.m. and re-opens at 7 as Knott's Scary Farm, which runs till 2 a.m. It is sold out virtually every night, and all the tickets for Halloween weekend - at $39 a pop - were gone a week before the event. With 1,200 monsters, Elvira's Haunted House Party, 10 mazes, and seven shows, this 26-year veteran of the scary event is considered the Halloween granddaddy of all.
Back in 1973, Knott's sponsored a visit from Wolfman Jack as the first Halloween event at a theme park. Today, it has the largest event in the country. The runner-up, Universal Studios in Florida, now has some 500 people working year round solely on its Halloween events, and Valencia's Six Flags Magic Mountain calls attendance for its event as important as its summer draw.
Orange, black, and green
All this is set against a backdrop of record levels of Halloween retail spending. According to the National Retail Federation in Washington, costumes racked up $1 billion worth of sales in 1997, and candy accounted for $958 million (not including cards, pumpkins, plastic bats, spiders, paper witches, green makeup, alien goo, and so forth).
The bonanza extends across the entertainment spectrum. There are children's CDs ("Hunk-Ta, Bunk-Ta, Spooky!") and week-long TV fright fests from shows that include even "The Magic School Bus" and "Peanuts."
Altogether, there seems to be no limit to America's taste for terror - or willingness to pay for it.
But the commercialization of Halloween creates no consternation for one middle-age man from Glendora, Calif., who was wandering through the eerie fog of Magic Mountain's Fright Fest. "It's not like any other holiday," he mused in the dark. "This is all ghouls and dead people. Who are we insulting if we spend a lot of money? Nobody."