Americans love to be scared, and the number one day of the year that people revel in all things spooky is Halloween. Every year, in the weeks leading up to October 31st, teens line up at haunted houses, porches are lined with flickering jack o’ lanterns, the latest installments of horror movie franchises arrive at the local Cineplex and kids of all ages dress up in costumes for parties and trick-or-treating.
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Halloween has become big business; American consumers are expected to shell out billions of dollars for costumes, candy and decorations in 2012, and the popularity of the holiday just keeps growing. It's gotten so big that its now the second most expensive holiday after Christmas.
"Halloween was a $4 billion industry now it's an $8 billion industry. It gets longer and longer," said David J. Skal, author of "Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween. "Our favorite holidays have a lot to do with each other, and there's always been this blurring. Tim Burton had it right with the 'Nightmare Before Christmas'."
As historians have examined the ways in which an era’s horror movies reflect larger societal fears, Halloween has long drawn criticism from more conservative types who feel that a holiday that glorifies vampires, viscera and witches is against their religion, or at least uncouth.
And as the commercialization of the holiday increases as time creeps forward, some parents have noticed that kids’ costumes have become increasingly gory. A sheet-over-the-head ghost costume just doesn’t have the same ghoul appeal to a youngster who lives in a world of blood spattered video games and TV shows full of zombies with a penchant for brains. Perhaps most disturbing is that costumes are available that allow kids as young as four or five to dress up as fictional killers like Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, or Jason Voorhees, all of whom all racked up significant onscreen body counts of unfortunate teens in horror movies from the 1980s and 90s.
"The rise of gruesome prosthetics in film have been mirrored year after year in more and more bloody and disgusting costumes," said Skal. "I don't read a lot into it, I don't think our kids are becoming psychopaths because of this."
That being said, how young is too young for Halloween’s gorier costumes? What does our obsession with being scared say about our society?
David J. Skal, lecturer, filmmaker and author of several books, including “The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror” (Faber & Faber 2001)