When Did Halloween Get So Ghastly Gruesome?

Maureen Dugan decorates her Old Town Alexandria front yard with a half-buried skeleton and other ghouls.
Maureen Dugan decorates her Old Town Alexandria front yard with a half-buried skeleton and other ghouls. (Courtesy Alexandria Mom.)
By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

This year's Halloween decorations may not just spook you, they might turn your stomach.

Next to the standard witches, ghosts and black cats, many specialty stores and catalogues are selling creepily realistic corpses, severed limbs and butchered body parts. One catalogue advertises an animated ghoul who can vomit into a barrel on cue (special order only, $2,750). An online company sells a Tortured Torso Prop (for $149) you can lean near your front door to welcome trick-or-treaters.

Whatever happened to jack-o'-lanterns and Casper the Friendly Ghost?

From costumes and props to indoor and outdoor home decorations and table settings, experts and retailers agree that Halloween is turning to the dark side, becoming gorier, more violent and more adult.

"This year we are moving away from costumes and more into gory props, because the consumer demand is growing," said Jessica Lutoff, a marketing analyst for Fright Catalog, an online and catalogue Halloween retailer.

With steady growth in sales, the Halloween home decorating market is huge, coming in second only to Christmas, according to the National Retail Federation. Total consumer spending on Halloween is expected to reach more than $5 billion this year, and a sampling of what's selling says it all.

Horchow, the high-end Neiman Marcus affiliate, sells fake buzzards and chocolate coffins. Target sells a 15-piece cemetery kit, a hanging grim reaper and an oversize maggot. Spirit Halloween, a Spencer's specialty store, sells the Tortured Torso Prop and a child's costume called Sailor of Death. Fright Catalog, seller of the Vomit Barrel, also serves up John Doe, a latex corpse with a hollow chest cavity for displaying a food buffet inside.

Even the ever-tasteful Martha Stewart has given in to ghastly. The October issue of her magazine shows how to make giant spider egg sacks and white taper candles dripping with "blood" (red candle wax). She smiles next to a table centerpiece made of green-glittered skeletal parts.

"There has always been a love of the gruesome in American culture," said Lesley Pratt Bannatyne, author of several Halloween books, "and it's found its way to Halloween."

Back in the '50s, Halloween was a holiday centered on children and candy bars. In the glow of these memories, we think of families carving jack-o'-lanterns, decorating tricycles for neighborhood parades, bobbing for apples and trick-or-treating. And from this distance, even the tricks, such as draping toilet paper over a front-yard tree, appear benign.

But the country has been through a lot in the past 60 years, and violent images have become part of our culture, Bannatyne said. She pointed to slasher movies of the '70s -- specifically the 1978 horror movie "Halloween" -- as a turning point.

"Until that movie, Halloween was never associated with violence in such a huge way. It cemented a relationship that hadn't existed before." It was around that same time, she said, that large numbers of adults started wearing costumes again.

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