Joie Grandbois heard it more than once when she was a youngster: “You’re too old.”
Grandbois was always tall for her age, so grown-ups handing out candy on Halloween night would look her over and decide she was no longer a little kid. Halloween, they reasoned, was for little kids.
Those people might have been right then, 30 years ago. But they’re dead wrong today.
Now 41, Grandbois is part of a generation of adults who have never abandoned their love for Halloween. They are a generation that has helped Halloween grow from a one-day candy giveaway for kids into an entire season where grown-ups partake of parties and over-the-top theatrics, wear fantasy costumes and visit commercial haunted attractions.
To celebrate Halloween, Grandbois will dress in her scariest duds and attend Portland’s annual Goth Ball. Some years on Halloween she entertains other grown-ups, as part of the Portland-based Dark Follies, a Gothic-inspired variety troupe.
“It’s definitely become more of an adult holiday, and big business,” said Grandbois, of Portland, who works as a paralegal. “I think it’s partly because people today are so interested in the unexplained, in the spooky side of life. It’s also about escapism during tough times, and about people looking for a sense of community they don’t find in other places today. Plus, everyone loves to dress up.”
Halloween has become big business for sure, and retail data show that adults are fueling that. About 44 percent of the 5,290 adults who responded to a National Retail Federation Halloween survey said they are planning to dress up this year, as opposed to the 30 percent of grown-ups who said they were dressing up for the holiday in 2004. About 50 percent of respondents between the ages of 35 and 44 said they are getting decked out for Halloween this year, compared to just 34 percent in 2004.
The National Retail Federation estimates that American consumers this year will spend $1.2 billion on adult costumes, and nearly $7 billion on all things Halloween. That’s an increase in overall Halloween spending of more than 50 percent since 2005.
All you have to do is scan a newspaper to see how adult-oriented Halloween has become. There are ads for adult costume rentals at various stores. There are listings for Halloween balls and parties, as well as haunted hayrides and houses that are much too graphic for small children. Turn on the TV and you see commercials featuring adults psyched for Halloween, including a recent one for a new smartphone, with a whole family in costume trick-or-treating.
Or walk around in your own neighborhood to see how much grown-ups have become the drivers of the Halloween season. In Falmouth, look to the home of Anne Cote, which she turns into a haunted funeral parlor called Olde Blackwood Manor for her annual Halloween bash. Cote, 41, has acquired six caskets and an actual hearse for her annual revelry. She figures she’s spent $30,000 outfitting her Halloween dream house over the years.
“When I was growing up, Halloween was about kids getting dressed up in those godforsaken rubber masks and filling pillow cases with candy,” said Cote, sales manager at the Morong auto dealership in Falmouth. “For adults now, I think it’s about being something else for a little while.”
For Cote, her Halloween alter ego is the director of a haunted funeral parlor, where bodies are dismembered and scattered in nearby woods. She’s written a whole story about the fictional funeral parlor in her home, online at OldeBlackwoodManor.com.
Cote says her fascination with Halloween and all that it has come to mean began when she was a child and visited the Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World in Florida. She doesn’t like horror films, she says, but likes Halloween because it lets people explore spooky, scary themes while “controlling the horror.”
The idea of adults using Halloween to live out fantasies, even for a little while, is evident in the top-selling adult costumes each year. Spirit Halloween, a 1,000-store chain that is open for Halloween season only, says the hottest-selling costume this year is a replica of the teddy bear leotard that pop singer Miley Cyrus wore while doing a racy act on stage at the Video Music Awards in late August, with singer Robin Thicke.
The striped suit Thicke wore is a hot costume, too, and both of them sell out within days of being stocked in Spirit stores, said Deede Dunbar, who runs the three Spirit Halloween stores in Maine. The music awards performance was recent, yet costume trend spotters knew a hot pop-culture costume idea when they saw one. Rights were secured, and the replicas of Cyrus’ and Thicke’s outfits were on Spirit Halloween store shelves within three weeks.
“We’re only getting limited quantities, and when they come in, they go right out,” said Dunbar, adding that about 50 percent of her stores’ sales are adult costumes. Children’s costumes make up about 25 percent of sales and decor makes up the rest.
Adults dressing up as fantasy characters for Halloween is not completely new, but certainly much more mainstream today than a generation or two ago, said Erica Rand, a professor of gender studies at Bates College in Lewiston. She points out that Halloween was “big” for the gay community long before mainstream adults started dressing up. And she thinks the fact that adults are jumping feet-first into Halloween festivities is definitely attributable to good old-fashioned capitalism as well. She questions whether so many adults would be dressing up or decorating for Halloween if costumes and decor weren’t so readily available in stores and online.
But there does seem to be a lot of folks, especially teens and young adults, who are growing up now with the idea of Halloween as a fun season for all ages, not unlike Christmas. And they may not need to buy all their Halloween fun.
Isabel Robertson, 15, of Cape Elizabeth grew up embracing Halloween on many levels, including elaborate home decorations and visiting haunted attractions with her family. Isabel herself has given up on going out for candy, but has been busy this fall preparing for Halloween. She and her family have filled the yard with spooky stuff, including a coffin. She and her father built the coffin, which Isabel will pop out of to scare folks. She will be wearing a fake-fur papier-mache werewolf mask she made herself, with a movable jaw.
“There are so many levels to Halloween – there’s something for everyone, adults and kids,” said Isabel, a sophomore at Cape Elizabeth High School.
Halloween dates back 2,000 years, when people believed it was a night when the spirits of the dead could come back to Earth. During the gentler times of the 20th century it became a kid’s holiday. But maybe now Halloween is just coming full circle, or so says perhaps the only Mainer who has been the inspiration for a Halloween mask worn by millions.
“If you think about the time when Halloween was the day of the dead, it was a very adult holiday,” said Gunnar Hansen, 66, a Down East Maine resident who starred as Leatherface in the 1974 horror classic “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” “When I was a kid, the only way adults participated in Halloween was to make sure there was enough candy in the bowl.”
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org