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


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.