Halloween Has Gone Commercial…and It’s Awesome: Part I

October 2, 2010 – Halloween, like all the holidays before and after it, has long gone heavily commercial. Buying stuff is a huge part of the holiday. And I love that.

Now, granted, Halloween doesn't have the lofty goodwill at the center of its celebration like Christmas, so people don't complain about it being too commercial. But you know what? I'm ecstatic at how commercial Christmas is these days, too.

Here's the thing. We're a consumerist culture. We’re surrounded by commercialism. From the labels on our clothes, appliances, and electronics to the loans we take out for our cars and homes to the media devices in our pockets to the product placement in our shows to the cartoons-with-toy-tie-ins that we let our children watch to every bar code and trademark on every product that we own to the tumult of advertisements that impinge our eye space on an hourly basis, the commercial is inextricable from modern American life. Sometimes the fat guy just grows into the couch.

When I'm celebrating a holiday, I want to be surrounded by it. I mean, that’s the big reason why we decorate. A child-sized skeleton and a paper bat hanging from your rafters doesn’t make Halloween. But it does put you in a Halloween mood. And if the loud backdrop of our consumerist culture isn’t participating in the holiday, there is a gaping hole in our own celebration. We’d lack for certain moments of ambiance, feelings of kinship with the rest of the far-flung Halloween-celebrating country, and opportunities to celebrate the season. After all, somebody with a hankering for a profit invented candy corn, green-lighted the Charlie Brown Halloween Special, and turned an empty building into the first haunted house attraction.
We need a life-sized Spooky Village
somewhere in the country.

The trick (and treat) is to not lose the rest of the holiday, the emphasis on mutual celebration, the memory-making with family and friends, the carefully contrived plans for scaring the soul out of your wife by scrabbling around in the attic above the bedroom after she goes to bed. You can have all that in the full blaze of commercialism. Heck, commercialism can even facilitate it.

As a result, one of our big traditions is hitting every store with a Halloween aisle. Not to buy anything necessarily, but to be surrounded by the pure spooky joy that an aisle full of rubber severed heads, gummy candy eyeballs, and bloody plastic weapons can bestow. Here are some of the stores we hit every year at this time, complete with biased judgments about them.

I'll skip grocery stores, because most market chains aren’t universal. Still, the seasonal aisle at your local grocery store is not to be overlooked and will make me suddenly excited for toothpaste and trash bag runs. They’re also one of the best places to find Halloween candy. Sure, they have the giant bags of conventional sweets for handing out to trick-or-treaters, but I’m talking about the unique Halloween-themed treats that are meant to be eaten throughout the season. The Peppermint Patty Bats, the Butterfinger Pumpkins, the Halloween Pop Rocks. Anything on this page. The type of candy that makes me happy all month, but which I’d hate to find in my trick-or-treat bag because who wants to eat Halloween-themed candy on November 1st? Although I will if I have to.
Right, right "Beware, Beware..."
We got it animatronic witch.

My favorite store to visit is probably Michaels. Normally, I don’t have the reason nor the gender to enter a craft store, but at Halloween, Michaels transforms itself, or at least a few of its aisles. It’s one of the few stores you can visit that stocks Halloween decorations that range the complete aesthetic gamut, from the gruesome to the vintage classic to the cartoony to the stylized to the tasteful. Actually, that last might be a Halloween category I just made up.

Every year, Michaels also dedicates shelf space to set up a full diorama of Spooky Town Halloween village pieces. You know the ones I’m talking about. Extremely detailed creepy buildings and figures with light and motion that you collect individually and then display together in an impressive monster-filled town of sorts on whatever large horizontal surface you might have in your house. There are a few different companies that make these, but the common denominator among them is that it’s a really expensive hobby, with most pieces in the $30-$60 range and some even getting close to a hundred bucks. However, they do go on big discount the day after Halloween. Of course, like Halloween-themed candy, I can’t stand the sight of Halloween merchandise on November 1st and am physically incapable of taking advantage of the deals. I am, as a result, Spooky Town-less. If wishes were horses, though, I’d trade a couple of horses for a tiny monster town to stare at for hours on end (my end).

Michaels also sets up an entire display of those large animatronic, motion-sensor props that are fun to set off the first time, but whose spooky spiels get annoying when you’re legitimately browsing around and have set it off three times just because you’re waffling on whether to buy that ceramic jack-o-lantern whose face reminds you of Bronson Pinchot from certain angles.

When I do end up buying Halloween stuff to store in my dusty basement for 10 out of 12 months, I usually buy it from Michaels. Its only weakness is its lack of a candy aisle. I wish that were my only weakness.

Halloween at iParty
iParty, or whatever your version of a party store is called, is worth visiting in a different way. There’s nothing there that’ll make you want to figure out a rationale for displaying your purchase all year long. It’s mostly cheap decorations and costumes that you’ll probably throw away at the end of the season rather than expend the effort to pack it away and re-use it next year. As a result, its stock can be pretty boringly strewn about. However, every once in a while, I’ll find a party store with a great staff that goes the extra mile and sets up a selection of their wares in such a way that the whole place feels like a haunted house or Halloween bash. Party stores should make you want to party, after all. I feel like “Party, after all” should be the slogan for a non-alcoholic beer.

Seriously. I just couldn't stop writing this article. I think I might be broken…