Sour American economy only spurs Halloween festivities

Unemployment, recession, terrorism.

Or spiders, vampires and Charlie Sheen.

There’s more than enough to be afraid of in the real world, so given the option, America is choosing Door No. 2.

We’re turning fear into fun, and this Halloween we’re spending money like never before.

According to the National Retail Federation, American consumers in 2011 will spend $6.9 billion on the holiday — on costumes, candy, parties, decorations and such. Compare that to spending in 2005, when Americans spent a mere $3.29 billion.

“Halloween has become one of the most popular events of the year,” said Kathy Grannis, NRF spokeswoman. “Before, consumers got away with a scarecrow, a pumpkin and some cobwebs. Now, they have a pumpkin as large as their yard. People are spending money on having fun. It might be the one time they can forget about the economy — and they don’t have to buy gifts.”

One of the places consumers are spending is the “pop-up store,” the brief-season storefront that specializes in a single event. The traditional pop-up store is the Christmas tree stand, the vacant lot that suddenly appears after Thanksgiving and empties a week before New Year’s Day. Now there are Halloween pop-ups.

Alongside the traditional tricks and treats, two relatively new retail phenomena — haunted houses and corn mazes — are also becoming Halloween traditions.

For example, Maris Farms in Buckley has turned its corn maze into a virtual theme park. Attendance at the farm reached 36,000 in 2010, said marketing manager Steve Templeman, and the gate so far this year is up “about 15 percent.”

What began as a simple pumpkin patch has grown into a 25-acre theme park that lasts for one month only and features, along with those pumpkins, a corn maze, haunted woods, pony rides, hayrides, corn cannon, pumpkin catapults and pig races, among others.

“Our numbers have not gone down with the economy,” Templeman said. “They’ve stayed steady, or increased. There doesn’t seem to be the impact economically, the negative impact.”

Perhaps being frightened has become one of the core family values. It’s a cousin of the Buy Local movement.

“We’ve taken a commodity — agriculture — and turned it into an experience. Look at Starbucks,” he said. “They’ve taken a commodity — coffee — and turned it into an experience. You put in the family factor, and it increases.”

Gareth Barkin, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Puget Sound, said the classical interpretation of such a holiday calls it a “ritual of inversion.”

“Especially with repressive societies, or with a strong religious proscription in everyday life, one needs these kinds of rituals where people can do whatever they want, or the opposite of what they are required to do.”

He offered an example: “Kids extort candy from neighbors, which would be ridiculous when you think of it.”

And today, he notes, the event “has taken on different characteristics. It’s becoming much more popular with adults. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was a kids’ holiday, and it was all about the candy.”

Now, he said, increasingly, it’s becoming more about pop culture — salted with a tingle of sex.

“It sort of seems Halloween has moved from scary spooky. It’s been taken away from the world of devils and demons,” he said.

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