What’s in, what’s out and what’s offensive this Halloween

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Halloween used to be for children, but adults’ interest in continuing the fun of their youth has turned the holiday into a huge event — and moneymaker. Grownups also have turned the  outré holiday into one that strains the limits of acceptable taste and behavior, and each year ups the ante.

Estimates of what consumers spent last Halloween are as high as $11.4 billion, when you combine the costs of costumes, decorations and candy, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Helping to push the popularity of Halloween are the pop-up stores that arrive everywhere out of nowhere each fall, just before the leaves start to turn. They take over high-profile but abandoned retail spaces like demons invading bodies on the CW series Supernatural.

Operated by companies such as Halloween Express and Spirit Halloween, they give what once was the eve of All Saints Day a boost in visibility. They also provide tempting opportunities to find something clever to wear for busy adults who don’t have the time or talent to make their own costumes.

Spirit Halloween, a chain of more than 1,150 pop-up shops across the country, typifies the strategy and has honed it to a science. The company crams an impressive amount of business into a short amount of time. The staff swells from the hundreds to more than 20,000 starting in June and the company makes its revenue for the year in less than three months. The typical store takes six days to set up, opening Aug. 21 and closing Nov. 1.

“We are equivalent to an army operation in terms of the way we mobilize and move products,” says Steven Silverstein, CEO of the New Jersey-based company.

Although pop-up stores have been around for decades, they exploded when retailers got the idea of short-term rentals for holidays like Halloween and Christmas. Spirit Halloween was launched in 1983, as the holiday’s focus was evolving from children and trick-or-treating to parties for people of all ages, Silverstein says.

Planning for this Halloween began over a year ago. For example, it takes 18 months to design and produce elaborately spooky in-store displays.

Employees scout for locations throughout the year. Merchandise starts rolling into Spirit Halloween’s warehouses in May. By summer, sites have been chosen and, by mid-August, the stores are prepped to receive the goods. Trucks start arriving and the locations go from bare walls and floors to racks and shelves bursting with costumes, accessories, props and home decor.

What’s in?

On a recent gray Sunday afternoon, a clerk at Party City in Brown Deer said girls this year still are asking for costumes based on the 2013 animated film Frozen, demonstrating the deep cultural impact of the movie’s female empowerment story. 

Girls also are expected to choose a lot of costumes based on the Disney TV movie The Descendants, the story of the children of Disney characters such as Cruella De Vil and Cinderella.

For boys, another holdover is expected to dominate — in their case the reptilian superheroes of the 2014 film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Expect to see a lot of Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo and Raphael.

Children love the Turtles, and so do adults who watched them on TV and in movies when they were kids, Silverstein says.

Adult costumes and accessories based on TV shows like The Walking Dead and Orange Is the New Black are expected to sell well. Costumes based on superheroes like The Avengers or Batman will be brisk sellers.

From the political arena, there will be lots of Donald Trumps, Taylor Swifts and even costumes based on anti-gay Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis. In Wisconsin, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a scattering of Scott Walkers slithering about (to download your own Walker mask click here). 

As usual, corsets and skimpy outfits for women are likely to attract a lot of partygoers. Risqué costumes for women are always big Halloween sellers.

For adults with gorier tastes, Halloween fare this year includes bloodied zombies and ghouls and characters from slasher movie classics like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th — proving that when it comes to Halloween, some things never die.

Halloween culture wars

Taken as a group, the most popular costumes donned each year provide something of a cultural snapshot of that moment in time. The most revealing tend to be the politically incorrect.

Given that, every Halloween sparks national arguments over cstumes that reflect current events in ways that are widely considered tasteless.

In the early 1980s, drag queens dressed as Joan Crawford — holding baby dolls and coat hangers — were ubiquitous at gay Halloween parades. That was a cultural response to Christina Crawford’s tell-all memoir and the subsequent movie Mommy Dearest, which chronicled the movie icon’s allegedly brutal maternal skills. 

As critics pointed out at the time, child abuse is not a laughing matter. But that didn’t dampen the Halloween merriment that the book and movie unleashed.

Every Halloween brings a new incarnation of the Halloween culture wars. They heated up early this year. In August, petitions and social media outrage were already flying over a blood-spattered dentist’s smock paired with a Cecil-like lion head and over a replica of Caitlyn Jenner’s cream-colored corset set she wore on the cover of Vanity Fair.

“Trans is not a costume. Even though Caitlyn is a public figure and I could understand someone wanting to celebrate her as a hero and as a public figure, this could definitely take on a transphobic vibe,” said Addison Rose Vincent, an activist who started a Change.org petition asking Spirit Halloween to stop selling the costume, in an interview with Philly Voice.

“We create a wide range of costumes that are often based on celebrities, public figures, heroes and superheroes,” Lisa Barr, a spokeswoman for Spirit Halloween, responded in a statement. “Caitlyn Jenner is all of the above and our Caitlyn-inspired costume reflects just that.”

Is a Halloween costume that can be interpreted as ridiculing transgender people or one that laughs at the illegal butchering of the globally loved lion Cecil any different from Julianne Hough’s wearing of blackface or Prince Harry’s turn as a non-Halloween Nazi?

Richard Lachmann, a professor at the University of Albany who includes Halloween in his sociology of culture course, said costumes seem to be more provocative every year, with equally amped-up backlash. And there’s always a base of people who feel it’s an “irreligious pagan holiday to begin with and are ready to be upset,” he said.

Throw in a heavy dose of gore, loaded parody and ultra-sexy costumes, Lachmann added, and Halloween is now a free-for-all debate on what crosses the line of decency.

But is there a line at all?

“It seems like there isn’t,” he said. “The point for adults is to be provocative, to do something that breaks the lines of what’s considered acceptable.”

Still, one costume was yanked from the shelves of a Party City store in Waukesha for hitting too close to home.

That costume is based on the horror character Slender Man. In May, two 12-year-old girls stabbed a friend  19 times in a delusional attempt to curry favor with the fictional fiend.

When locals spotted the costume in a store just miles from where the girl was stabbed, they protested to the company, which agreed to remove the “Slenderman Partysuit” from local shelves.

“Our thoughts and condolences go out to family and friends of the victim and the entire local community,” store reps said in a statement to NBC 5 Chicago. “The local area stores have pulled the costume in question. Party City sells merchandise and costumes for all types of Halloween customers, and nothing we carry is meant to be offensive.”

The manager of a local Halloween Express also opted to pull the costume from his store, although it’s still available online at both companies’ websites, as well as Spirit Halloween’s website.

To download your Scott Walker mask, click here.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story