CHICAGO, Oct. 16 (UPI) -- Americans are hard-pressed to think of anything scarier than the economy these days -- but that's not stopping them from planning Halloween blowouts.
The National Retail Federation's 2011 Halloween Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey found 68.6 percent of respondents plan to celebrate Halloween this year, up 5 percent from last year, expecting to spend an average $72.31 -- $26.52 on costumes, $19.79 on decorations, $21.05 on candy and $4.96 on greeting cards.
The marketing research organization NPD Group put the percentage of participants even higher at 80 percent in its SnackTrack survey released in July.
"Americans are looking forward to having some fun this Halloween," said Matthew Shay, NRF president and chief executive officer.
Halloween was the third most popular holiday in an online Harris Poll of 2,462 adults Sept. 12-19, just behind Christmas and Thanksgiving.
"I think Halloween … (is) maybe the only holiday where we can escape from all the craziness," said Dan Haight, president and chief executive officer of BuySeasons.com, a distributor of Halloween costumes. "The economy is struggling. People are out of work. We can celebrate. It's not too expensive. It's not over the top."
The evidence of Halloween's popularity is everywhere with stores dedicated to ghouls and goblins taking over storefronts left empty by tough business conditions since the recession hit. What was once a holiday largely celebrated by little ghosts and witches has become big business, with total spending expected to reach $6.86 billion.
The NRF survey, conducted by BIGresearch among 9,374 consumers Sept. 6-14, found nearly 44 percent of Americans plan to dress up -- nearly 15 percent plan to dress up a pet -- more than 34 percent plan to attend or throw a party and nearly 23 percent plan to visit a haunted house while about half will decorate their homes or yards (skeletons, inflatable pumpkins and fake cob webs are the biggies). The survey had a 1 point error rate.
BIGresearch Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow said Halloween has become one of the most anticipated holidays because even those with the tightest pocketbooks can participate without blowing the budget.
NPD said the largest percentage of Halloween participants can be found among children ages 6-12, with participation beginning to fall after the age of 10.
Haight said though the holiday has grown steadily over the years, that growth likely will slow. Much of the growth has been in more adult celebrations, with the holiday coming in second only to Christmas in terms of how much is spent on decorations.
Of course decorations don't necessarily have to be bought. Homemaking guru Martha Stewart's Web site recommends cutting out mice silhouettes and propping them along staircases.
Spirit Halloween reported its top-selling costume this year is the Green Lantern, followed by Captain America, Thor, vampires, Smurfs and Charlie Sheen. BuyCostumes.com, part of BuySeasons, reports the Harry Potter Gryffindor robe, Batman and Super Mario Bros. are its top three kids' costumes while adults will be dressing as Edward Scissorhands (and Miss Scissorhands), Top Gun pilots and pirate wenches. BuyCostumes spokeswoman Kristen Crump said zombies also are big this year, fueled by the AMC series, "The Walking Dead."
"The days of wearing a sheet with two holes cut out for the eyes are over," Haight said, adding his personal favorite costume is Chewbacca of "Star Wars" fame.
"It's a little warm but if you're out trick-or-treating with the kids, it's fantastic. Whoever wears those costumes will be a hero," Haight said. "You really have to know how to do the Chewbacca growl, though."
And who doesn't like a good scare. While classic movies like "Jaws," "The Exorcist" and "The Sixth Sense" are always tasty fare, among the Hollywood releases this season are "The Thing," "The Skin I Live In" and "The Woman." (Personally, I prefer "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "Bell, Book and Candle.")
Halloween grew out of ancient festivals -- possibly Rome's feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or Parentalia, the festival of the dead, or the Celtic festival of Samhain. Wikipedia says it first earned the moniker Halloween in the 1500s, a variant of the Scottish observance of All-Hallows-Even.
Carving turnips to remember souls stuck in purgatory gave way to carving pumpkins when the custom migrated to North America, largely because pumpkins are easier to carve.
The custom of trick-or-treating likely stems from the Scottish custom of guising -- the poor going door-to-door to beg food in exchange for prayers for the dead.
In more recent years, however, Halloween has come under attack. Devil's Night celebrations in Detroit on Oct. 30 turned into arson festivals in the 1970s and '80s, although civic efforts to turn the destruction into Angel's Night have tempered the damage in the last decade or so. Numerous communities have limited trick-or-treating hours, some even discouraging the practice for fear candy could be adulterated.
In Calgary, Canada, Evangelical Christians are promoting JesusWeen this year as a counter-festival. Evangelical teens are expected to hand out Bibles and Christian tracts to trick-or-treaters.