Skip to main content

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: mythja/Shutterstock)

(Photo: mythja/Shutterstock)

It’s easy to tell on the Internet when it’s getting close to Halloween. Whatever viral phenomena happens to be bouncing around at the moment—Rob Ford, Beyoncé, Balloon Kid—gets transmogrified into the world’s stupidest last-minute costume, often with the adjective “sexy” appended to the front. Hence the existence of the Sexy Ebola Nurse costume, available for around $50 from some of your finest online retailers.

That specific costume might be a joke, but the Halloween costume industrial complex is not. As may also be evidenced from the costume shops that pop up in empty storefronts every September and vanish by November 1, selling silly outfits for kids and adults alike is a big business—and it’s getting bigger. In its annual report on commerce during the holidays, the National Retail Federation found that the highest number of Americans ever are planning on buying Halloween costumes.

Individual Halloween costumes tend to be cheap and disposable, but the numbers still add up. Forty-six percent of Americans who said they plan to celebrate Halloween will be wearing costumes, with an average outlay per buyer of $43.43. Altogether, the NRF’s report predicted expenditures of $2.79 billion on outfits.

Forty-six percent of Americans who said they plan to celebrate Halloween will be wearing costumes, with an average outlay per buyer of $43.43.

The audience for those costumes is also surprising. Of the $2.79 billion, around $1 billion will go toward children’s costumes, $350 million to pet costumes, and the largest part, $1.38 billion, toward costumes for adults (note that “adult costumes” does not necessarily mean millions of Sexy Ebola Nurses). The 18-24 age bracket is the most likely to wear a costume, at 78 percent, followed not too far behind by the 25-34 bracket’s 70 percent. But participation falls quickly after that, with only 54 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds and 37 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds getting into the game (perhaps when their kids no longer feel like doing it, either). The 65-plus crowd accounts for just 20 percent.

Another big part of the Halloween budget is candy, which 71 percent of Halloween participants plan to purchase. The average layout for candy on an individual basis is $24.64, with a grand total of $2.23 billion—enough to buy 446 million big bags of Snickers fun-size candy bars. Unlike costumes, candy is a universal source of Halloween joy. The percentage of participants in the teeth-rotting tradition stays steady across all ages at around 95 percent, though the 55- to 64-year-old age bracket is highest at 96.5 percent. Are they handing it out to the neighborhood kids or just hoarding it?

Halloween might be “one of the fastest-growing consumer holidays,” as NRF President Matthew Shay notes in the report, but it falls far behind other significant dates. The winter holidays come in with an annual expenditure of over $600 billion, back-to-school has a $72.5 billion ticket, and even Mother’s Day is ahead at $19.9 billion.

Maybe that’s because the spirit of Halloween is more about doing it yourself than many other holidays. The focus isn’t on the gifts you give people or the scale of the decorations you install; it’s how creative you can get with the materials at hand. Paying for a pre-made costume, especially one that transparently riffs on current events, is a cop-out. The real expense should be in construction paper, cardboard, and glue.

Money, after all, is not how we make a holiday memorable. The outfits I recall most fondly from my own childhood are the ones that my parents allowed me the most control over, no matter how badly I cut things up. There was the time I built a replica Ninja Turtles shell from spare boxes and a few fragile masks made from papier-mâché spread over an inflated balloon. In college, I kept things going by constructing an intricate robot costume from cardboard tubes I appropriated from the mailroom and then drew on with a permanent marker. These weren’t complicated nor particularly elegant, but they were certainly more fun than if I had just picked up something from the pop-up store.

Candy can be DIY, too—you can make your own caramels, Twix bars, or candy apples, and then hand them out. Or if you find yourself with too much store-bought candy left over, you can bake it into cookies or just stick it into a waffle iron. Carved pumpkins now sitting lonely on your porch? Jack-o-lanterns still make great pies, according to the Food Safety & Nutrition branch of the University of Nebraska. Just be sure to wipe down the outside and scrape out any candle wax first.

An extremely artisanal, low-cost Halloween is just a few steps away. But for those truly invested in participating in the Halloween industrial complex, there’s always the Griz Coat, a $199, made-in-America bear costume that’s gaining in popularity with the employees of tech start-ups. It might not be sexy, but it’ll definitely turn heads.