Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think

Aimee Heidelberg - October 9, 2023

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
1977 C3PO costume, able to fit over a warm coat. Tim1965 (2010, CC 3.0)

Cold-Weather Friendly Costumes

After a period of Halloween being treated as a children’s event, the 1960s brought the party back to include adults. But there was a difference in how the two groups celebrated the holiday. Children wanted ‘full coverage,’ with their manufactured masks and plastic or fabric cover-all printed with their favorite characters. These cover-alls allowed the costumes to be worn over the coats and sweaters parents forced their children to wear while trick-or-treating in colder climates and could be worn over lighter fabrics in warmer regions. The one-size fits all coverall allowed kids to be a character, even if a jacket was required. There was no limit to how children could show their fandom. But the adults preferred to immerse themselves in the character, not just declare their fan status.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Halloween 1977 costume party. Steve Mays (CC 2.0)

Adults Want to Immerse in the Costume Experience

As the children ventured out bundled in their costume-covered winter gear, adults opted for an immersive experience in their choice of costume. Since chilly weather trick-or-treating wasn’t typically part of the adult scene, they could be in full dress for their costumes. But the main difference is adults preferred to go without masks. Instead, they showed their faces, painted to resemble their costume subject. They capped the look off with coiffures, hats, or other costume head gear. Adults wore full-immersion costumes that let them adopt a whole new identity for the evening. It was a night to be as outrageous, sexy, flamboyant, or campy as they wanted with no repercussions.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Ben Cooper Co. Tinkerbell costume set from the 1950s. Tim1965 (2010, CC 3.0)

Halloween Costumes Reflect Pop Culture

Costumes represented a parade of popular culture hits. Kids could disguise themselves as Spider Man, Tinkerbell, Wilma Flintstone, Flipper, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, a witch, and as time went on, Star Wars characters, E.T., Flipper, even a Rubik’s Cube (with eyeholes and a painted-on smile). Some of the costumes depicted actual people (albeit a warped-looking, cartoon version of them). Children might dress as the Beatles, Elvis, or the Fonz from Happy Days. The costume company made a few questionable choices, particularly when building costumes based on adult-level popular culture. There were years children could find costumes of Joanie Loves Chachi, Laverne and Shirley, or even Jaws and Alien, which peeved some parents. Alien was a dark science fiction horror movie and Jaws was about a killer shark. But Ben Cooper, Inc. were one of the biggest manufacturer of Halloween costumes and could afford a few misfires.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Children dressed up for Halloween in 1980. Ryan Leighty (CC BY 2.0).

Halloween Costumes: Sales Take a Bitter Pill

Parents in the 1980s firmly warned their children not to accept candy from strangers. Some parents inspected candy piece-by-piece for evidence of tampering, in part due to urban legends. But fears spiked in 1982 when seven people died after consuming cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. Unlike the case of Timothy O’Bryan, whose father killed him with a cyanide-laced Pixy Stix for life insurance money, The Tylenol Cyanide Killer remains uncaught. Around Halloween, parents were leery about their children going out trick-or-treating. Costume sales took a hit as the old urban legend seemingly became a reality, but it didn’t take long for them to bounce back and enter a new market. Adults hosted Halloween parties instead of taking children trick-or-treating where they might receive a razorblade laced apple. To keep the festive atmosphere, adults started dressing up in their own costumes.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Burning man should only ever be a festival. Burning Man 2016. Carnaval.com Studios (2016, CC 2.0)

Halloween Costumes, Frighteningly Flammable

Nothing ruins a trick-or-treat party faster than a costume going up in flames while it is being worn. Halloween tradition includes jack-o-lanterns lit from candlelight inside its hollowed-out core. But children aren’t known for self-preservation skills and abundance of caution. Trick-or-treating came with the constant threat of a costume coming too close to a jack-o-lantern flame, igniting and burning a child. Parents were growing increasingly worried about costume safety in the 1980s and 90s. They didn’t want their child’s costume suddenly turning into a flaming horror show. Safety-concious parents rejected costumes that could come in contact with open flame and move toward costumes less likely to catch fire. Likewise, parents were also encouraged to use glow sticks or flashlights in the jack-o-lanterns to avoid burning a trick-or-treater. But the Ben Cooper, Inc. style masks were also the target of suspicion.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think


Halloween Costumes and the Potential for Injury

Fire wasn’t the only hazard that came in a Ben Cooper box. The eye holes on masks were not large and were prone to slipping. With only a thin elastic cord to hold it on, they shifted around a lot, blocking eyesight with a slight turn of the head. Children walking along the road at night with restricted vision was a hazard; one shift of their mask could create a misstep sending them into traffic. Parents were encouraged to use makeup instead, painting children’s faces to preserve their full range of vision rather than wearing a mask that could go askew and block their vision. The Kooky Spooks inflatable costumes like the one pictured here allowed a normal range of vision while still indulging in plastic poncho fun. Costumes were poised for another evolution, shifting into a period of realism, where the costume allowed its wearer to become the character.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Spirit Halloween, Farmington, CT, in former Sports Authority store. Mike Mozart (2016, CC 2.0).

Halloween Costumes Evolve from Plastic to Prominence

For centuries, costumes were made at home. In the mid-1900s, the HalCo and Ben Cooper designs dominated shelves of drug stores. But costuming would soon turn into a mega-industry. In 1983, a discount women’s dress shop owner in California noticed his sales declining, but in October, the costume shop across the road couldn’t keep up with demand. After the costume shop moved, owner Joseph Marver set up his own seasonal costume shop and told Vox.com, “It was the best October we ever had.” He repeated the trick in other empty mall store spaces, selling $100,000 worth of costume pieces in a month. From there, the model of seasonally leasing empty retail space and hiring temporary workers inspired other retailers to follow suit. Halloween Express followed the Spirit Halloween model. These pop-up Halloween stores are responsible for about 35% of the Halloween market, according to the National Retail Federation.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Inside of a Spirit Halloween. Phillip Pessar (2023, CC 2.0)

The Spirit (and Profit) of Halloween

From twelve-foot skeletons in the yard, to projection mapping light displays on their houses, Halloween has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. Halloween festivals such as the Haunted Happenings in Salem, Massachusetts attracts almost a million visitors in the month of October, with tourism spending generating around $30 million for the community, and $2.5 million in tax revenue. The National Retail Federation expects Halloween spending in the United States to reach $12.2 billion in 2023, exceeding even pre-pandemic levels. Costumes are a big part of that income. The National Retail Federation estimated 69% of consumers participated in Halloween celebrations in 2022, generating $10.7 billion. Spirit Halloween, a costume, accessory, and decoration retailer, built a business model of seasonally moving into vacant stores. An estimated $400 million each year comes from their seasonal sales.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Dog in Calypso costume. Petful (2012, CC 2.0).

Halloween Costumes are Hard to Tell from the Real Thing

Halloween costumes have evolved from Samhain animal skins and homemade concoctions by people with questionable artistic skills. Who cares if their homemade bunny mask looks like it has mutated into something from a horror movie? Fun aside, Halloween costumes evolved into a widely marketed product, meant to appease today’s discerning consumers. Costumes have become almost indistinguishable from the original costumes seen on stage and screen. While inexpensive options are available in stores and online, Halloween costumes have become less like Ben Cooper’s plastic garb and more like gowns will full hoop skirts, superhero costumes with muscle padding built in, and Inflatable costumes that allow people to become dinosaurs, unicorns, or alien abductees. Even pets are getting into the Halloween costume spirit. These options are more costly but allow the wearer to fully immerse themselves in the character, and become whoever they want to be, for one wild day.

Where did we find this stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Cultural appropriation, a perennial issue on Halloween. Leila Fadel, NPR, 29 October 2019.

From pagan spirits to Wonder Woman: A brief history of the Halloween costume. Marianna Cerini, CNN.com, 25 October 2020.

Halloween pop-up stores, explained. Gaby Del Valle, Vox.com, 29 October 2018.

Halloween timeline: How the holiday has changed over the centuries. History.com editors, History.com, 12 September 2023.

How Anoka, Minnesota, became the Halloween Capital of the World. Hannah McDonald, Mental Floss, 29 October 2019.

How Ben Cooper changed Halloween forever. Charles Moss, Slate.com, 31 October 2013.

Masking and mumming for the holidays, Thanksgiving style! Stephen Winick, Library of Congress Blogs, 25 November 2020.

Salem nets more than $250K during Haunted Happenings. Ethan Forman, The Salem News, 15 November 2014.

Soul cakes and the origins of Trick or Treating. Alex Ryan Thompson, Clemson College of Agriculture, Ecology, and Life Science, 31 October 2022.

The history of Halloween costumes. Emma Fraser, SyFy, 18 September 2019.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse. Bethany Biron, Insider.com, 21 October 2022.

What makes this Minnesota town the Halloween Capital of the World? Jennifer Nalewicki, Smithsonian Magazine, 25 October 2019.

When Halloween was all tricks and no treats. Lesley Bannatyne, Smithsonian magazine, 27 October 2017.

Why do we celebrate Halloween? The dark origins of the holiday. Caroline Picard and Lizz Schumer, Good Housekeeping, 8 June 2023.