Halloween began as a pagan religious ceremony, but it’s clearly a secular event today. The National Retail Federation tell us that Americans will spend about $9 billion on the holiday this year, which includes about $3.2 billion on costumes, $2.7 billion on decorations, $2.6 billion on candy, and $400 million on greeting cards. Indeed, this holiday accounts for ¼ of all candy that companies sell during the year.
Those are some scary numbers, indeed. Not to mention that 18% of those who celebrate also plan to dress their pets in costumes.
Halloween illustrates why marketers need to pay close attention to consumer rituals. Holidays are a form of ritual involving highly symbolic, scripted behavior that evolves from earlier myths and ceremonies – and often tons of products like candy, costumes and specific food items. These ritual artifactsare the lifeblood of many businesses (not just Hallmark). The moral for marketers: Attach your product to a ritual, and if necessary invent one. I’m looking at you, Cinco de Mayo.
The modern Halloween – which has evolved as an adult holiday from the kids’ paradise of not too long ago – is however unique in some respects from most other cultural observances such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving. For one, the rituals of Halloween (e.g., trick-or-treating and costume parties) primarily involve nonfamily members. In contrast to Christmas, it celebrates evil instead of good, and death rather than birth. The holiday encourages revelers to extort treats with veiled threats of “tricks” rather than rewards for the good.
Because of these oppositions, Halloween is an antifestival —an event that distorts the symbols we associate with other holidays. For example, the Halloween witch is an inverted mother figure. The holiday also parodies the meaning of Easter because it stresses the resurrection of ghosts, and it mocks Thanksgiving because it transforms the wholesome symbolism of the pumpkin pie into the evil jack-o-lantern.
Furthermore, Halloween provides a ritualized, and therefore socially sanctioned, context that allows people to try on new roles: Children can go outside after dark, cavort in gender-crossing or satanic costumes, and eat all the candy they like for a night. The otherwise geeky guy who always sits in the back of class dresses as Jason from Friday the 13th and turns out to be the life of the party. Indeed, the anonymity of costumes can provoke what social psychologists call deindividuation; we tend to lose our inhibitions when our real identity is not apparent and do things we would never dream of if others can identify us. There’s a reason why members of hate groups like The Klan wear masks. Hopefully the typical Halloween costume party just involves a bit more frenetic dancing than usual.
For cultural historians, Halloween provides other (non-sugary) rewards: The popular costume choices each year are a great reflection of the zeitgeist in our society at the time. According to early returns (courtesy of Google Frightgeist), the #MeToo Movement doesn’t seem to have made a dent (at least this year): the most popular female costumes are a Witch, the sexy comic book icons Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn, and a Princess. Now, that’s a bit scary.
© 2018 Michael Solomon All rights reserved.