Like a lot of kids, I loved everything about Halloween — so much so that I used to travel to a faraway friend’s Halloween-obsessed neighborhood so I could celebrate the holiday in the best way possible. I left with practically enough candy to last me until the following Oct. 31.
So imagine my surprise, some 50 or so years later, when I received an email from a gourmet-food company advertising a Halloween sale on caviar. Not chocolate bars. Not peanut-butter cups. But good ol’ fish eggs. Just the thing every red-blooded American kid craves.
Of course, this wasn’t a sale aimed at children. Rather, it was all about the adults. Or, as the retailer advertised in its Halloween promotion, “whether you’re hosting a decadent brunch, a chillingly delightful gathering, or an elegantly haunting dinner, our caviar collection promises to add an air of luxury to your festivities.”
Then again, there’s nothing really surprising here. In recent years, Halloween has morphed more into a day for grown-up fun. Look around and you’ll find everything from wineries hosting Halloween events — as in you trick-or-treat your way into receiving glass after glass — to fast-food chains hawking Halloween meal buckets. And let’s not forget all those costume contests at the office.
Speaking of getting dressed up, here’s a telling statistic: The National Retail Federation reports that there’s more spent these days on adult Halloween costumes ($2 billion) than on children’s ones ($1.4 billion).
“This year, people are expected to spend more on adult Halloween costumes than on children’s ones.”
The spending on adult fun is clearly contributing to the holiday becoming bigger than ever. The NRF says the Halloween outlay will reach an all-time high of $12.2 billion this year, surpassing last year’s record mark of $10.6 billion.
Is it just me, or is there something sad about all this Halloween hoopla, especially on the adult front? It’s like the meaning of the holiday — well, at least the kid-oriented meaning in mid-20th Century America — has been negated and now it’s just an excuse for grown-ups to party, get drunk and maybe fill themselves up on caviar. Until a few years ago, I thought the definition of adult Halloween was raiding your children’s pile of candy.
Various reasons are offered from those in the know about how and why this shift in the holiday has happened. Begin with the fact that Halloween’s roots were far more meaningful — the event reportedly started as a pagan religious celebration when Celtic people in Europe welcomed the harvest at the end of summer. It has gone through various changes over time. The latest incarnation may be the most unseemly.
But some also say what we’re seeing today reflects a tendency among Generation Zers and millennials to hold on to their childhood for as long as possible. It ties in with what’s been called Peter Pan Syndrome — or the emerging adulthood phase. And it speaks to the fact that this younger cohort finds it increasingly difficult to get ahead as grown-ups, especially given the costs involved: Think about how much more difficult it is to buy a home now versus decades ago.
Linus Owens, an associate professor at Middlebury College who’s explored Halloween’s evolution, also makes the case that younger people today often feel their creativity is being stifled at work. Halloween gives them a day to “express who they are,” he argues.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Kelsey Latimer adds to that, saying that Gen Zers and millennials “focus on working to live, not living to work.” Meaning they are “more likely to want to engage in parties and social events.” Halloween is a perfect platform in that regard.
“Yet another event on the calendar has just become an opportunity to sell, sell, sell.”
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that once retailers and others in a position to gain financially sensed the shift, they jumped on the grown-up Halloween bandwagon. It’s arguably no different from how other holidays have become overly commercialized — just another event on the calendar that has become an opportunity to sell, sell, sell.
“It’s obligatory marketing,” says Craig Agranoff, a veteran marketing professional based in Boca Raton, Fla.
Still, at its worst, it can be plain tactless: Consider the way that Juneteenth, our newest federal holiday and one that commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S., turned into a sales event. Walmart
even released a Juneteenth-themed ice cream, only to face a backlash.
With Halloween, one might say there’s no such thing as going too far. The holiday is about taking things to the extreme, after all, so why not let the grown-ups join in the spook-filled merriment? Especially at a moment when we all could use some diversion, some say.
“During a time of rampant inflation and economic uncertainty, a fun and relatively low-cost celebration can relieve stress for adults,” says Scott Lieberman, founder of the Touchdown Money financial site.
My counterargument is that when the adults win, the children lose. That is, when we co-opt the fun, we spoil it — at least a little bit.
“The Halloween of my childhood didn’t have Zombie pub crawls (trust me, they’re a thing). ”
I think of the neighbors I once knew who turned their driveway into an open-air bar come Halloween. The idea was that as parents brought their kids to the house for trick-or-treating, they could get their own “treat” as well. But somehow, it seemed like the kids were forgotten in the mix and parents were tempted to linger at the house far too long and have another cocktail.
Beyond that example, it’s more a general issue of innocence lost. The Halloween of my childhood didn’t have Zombie pub crawls (trust me, they’re a thing). It just had kids sporting simple, often homemade costumes wandering through the neighborhood in search of that one house that gave out full-size candy bars. There was still money to be made off the holiday, for sure, but not in a way that suggested rampant, adult-oriented commercialism.
Heck, you could still spend the evening waiting for the Great Pumpkin, as in the mythical figure from the Peanuts classic television special. That show captures the spirit of Halloween as I prefer to remember it — without a mention of caviar sales.
Plus, as Agranoff reminded me, grown-ups already have enough fun in this world: “The adults have pickleball,” he says. “Let the kids have some things.”
I’d put Halloween at the top of that list.