Gerald Ensley: Halloween is more than just a hobo costume!

Tallahassee Democrat, Oct. 30, 2012!

Do you remember how big Halloween was back in the 20th century when baby boomers were growing up?

No, me neither.

When I was growing up, Halloween was just a blip on the calendar. Yes, we carved the occasional pumpkin, put a candle inside and called it a jack-o-lantern. Yes, we went trick-or-treating and loaded up on candy.

But I don't remember houses decorated with spider webs, strobe lights and ghost hankies in the trees. I don't remember pumpkin patches with hundreds of people taking photos. I don't remember commercial haunted houses where folks paid to get scared out of their wits.

And I certainly don't remember stores offering a vast array of Halloween costumes. I went trick or treating every year as a hobo or a baseball player because that was stuff I had in the closet.

But for tonight's Halloween, times have changed. Half the houses in Tallahassee sport some kind of Halloween decoration — with neighborhoods like Lafayette Park practically turning into theme parks. There are Halloween office parties (we're having one) and costume contests (including Dog-O-Ween). There are "pop up" Halloween stores that take over empty mall spaces to sell costumes, decorations and spooky paraphernalia. Every church seems to run a pumpkin patch and/or "Trunk or Treat" (that modern nod to safety, in which kids trick or treat from parked cars).

No question, part of the growth is attributable to capitalism. Entrepreneurs have learned there is money to be made on Halloween costumes, greeting cards, scary movies, etc., and they fill stores and online websites merchandise. In fact, urban legend holds that Halloween is the second most lucrative annual holiday, behind only Christmas.

Actually, according to the National Retail Federation, Halloween ranks no better than sixth in holiday sales, behind Christmas, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, Easter and Father's Day. Still, Halloween sales are expected to top $8 billion this year, a 16-percent increase over last year.

Yet Halloween's growing popularity owes to something more than money. Clearly, people find something endearing about the day.

Take costumes. Halloween allows fantasy.

Crystal Hall, manager of Spirit of Halloween, a pop-up store in the Tallahassee Mall run by the national Spencer's Gifts chain, opened her store in late August. The store has done a steady business in children's and adult's costumes, from $25 to $50. You can find Snow White, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Spartacus and zombie costumes, not to mention "Pretty Pirate" and "Naughty Vampire" costumes, which seem mostly about fishnet stockings.

"I've always found Halloween to be the one day you can be something you're not," Hall said. "For some people, Halloween is bigger than Christmas."

Take scary houses. Halloween provides thrills.

Kurt Kuersteiner is a graduate of the FSU film school, a book publisher and a former high-school and community college teacher. Since 1999, he's operated Terror of Tallahassee, a haunted house on Gaines Street.

Kuersteiner said the haunted house concept was big in the early 20th century, when magicians rented theaters on Halloween to perform spooky examples of legerdemain and show horror movies. Such shows fell by the wayside in the 1950s but have been resurrected in venues such as Terror of Tallahassee.

Where many haunted houses do about five minutes of scary stuff, Kuersteiner has created a 30-minute, big production show, featuring actors, sound and light effects, magic and audience interaction.

"When you're a teacher, you knock yourself out to teach students something they'll remember, if you're lucky, until the next test," Kuersteiner said. "But a haunted house burns into people's memories. I've had people tell me in detail how we scared them several years ago. It's very satisfying. They may have been scared when they went through. But you've created a memory."

Or take pumpkin patches. Halloween provides beauty.

Faith Presbyterian Church has operated a pumpkin patch for 15 years at its complex on North Meridian Road. The original impetus, certainly, was financial. The church makes $10,000 to $15,000 every fall, which helps defray the costs of its numerous youth missions to places like Haiti.

But the real magic has become the photo op, amid bales of hay, funny scarecrows and thousands of pumpkins. Susan McLeod, a church member who works the patch every year, estimates a couple of thousand people visit over the patch's three-week run. Many, obviously, buy pumpkins. But almost all take photos.

Mothers and children. Boyfriends and girlfriends. Entire school classes. On Monday morning, despite temperatures in the 40s, a college student showed up in a strapless formal dress to have her photo taken surrounded by pumpkins. Later Monday, a retired schoolteacher came to sit in the sun and watch school children cavort — smiling broadly the whole time.

"I think it's the sun coming through the pines and hitting the pumpkins," McLeod said. "It's that perfect fall moment that can't be produced anywhere else."

Indeed, FSU English professor emeritus Bruce Bickley will tell you the magic of Halloween may be its timing. October is traditionally the time of harvest, the joyful reward for the hard work of farming. In places like Florida, October is when the excruciating heat of summer finally gives way to the cool temperatures of fall.

"There is a festive air to this time of year," said Bickley, a specialist in folklore. "You're building that first fire of the year. You're dressing the kids up and taking pictures for the Christmas card. You feel like getting out and about.

"It's very community building."



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rev 9.11.11