Putting the green in Halloween
By Mike Danahey ~ email@example.com October 13, 2012 4:52PM
Leo McNamee poses next to some of his Halloween decorations outside his Naperville home on Thursday, October 11, 2012. McNamee has been adding to his annual display for more than 20 years and said it's not uncommon to see between 300 and 500 trick-or-treaters on Halloween. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 15, 2012 6:24AM
Three decades ago, Leo McNamee and his wife Susan took to decorating their yard for Halloween.
Over time, he became fascinated with applying theater set technology to their display, designing and building special effects to include in the project. Ten years ago, he started attending Halloween merchandise trade shows to pick up decorations and ideas. Although his wife died two years ago, he’s continuing the tradition. He even advertised this year in the Naperville Independent Film Festival brochure to attract a larger audience.
“Even though trick-or-treating is for kids, Halloween is more for adults,” McNamee said. “People spend a lot of time and money putting decorations in their yards because it gives them a chance to be creative and have fun. For me, it’s a chance to showcase my skills and creativity.”
It also helps explain why Halloween is big business. In fact, it’s downright spooky how much green is being spent on the orange and black holiday these days.
According to a National Retail Federation press release, on average, those buying decorations, costumes and candy will fork out $79.82, up from $72.31 last year, with total Halloween spending expected to reach $8 billion, up from $6.86 billion in 2011.
The ever-growing popularity of all things Halloween is “because the trick-or-treating baby boomers are grown-ups, and we have such warm memories of that time in our childhood,” said Elizabeth Haney, marketing honcho at Acme Design, an Elgin prop and model making business.
“Baby boomers grew up during a period that produced ‘monster kids,’ kids who watched classic monster movies on broadcast television, collected monster toys and read monster magazines,” she said. “For a monster kid, Halloween was the high point of what was a year-round fascination.”
A survey conducted for the NRF claims a record 170 million people in this country plan to celebrate Halloween this year. Seven in 10 (71.5 percent) will get into the spirit of the season, up from 68.6 percent last year.
According to the NRF, more than half (51.4 percent) of Americans will decorate their home or yard for the season, up from 49.5 percent last year. About 45 percent plan to dress in costume, also up from last year (43.9 percent); more than one-third (36.2 percent) will attend a party; 33.2 percent will take children trick-or-treating; and 15.1 percent will dress pets in costumes.
“Decorations have definitely gotten a lot more sophisticated and a lot more affordable,” noted McNamee. “Years ago, a fog machine cost $1,000. Now Target sells them for $20.”
While Halloween is rooted in pagan harvest rituals and festivals honoring the deceased, the season is helping local entrepreneurs and purveyors of all things spooky reap some serious cash.
It’s also resuscitating the oft-dead downtown in Elgin.
Turning orange to gold
Dundee-area native Ron Madoch quit his day job at Arthur Andersen 10 years ago to join a college buddy, Steve Loney, who already had left the same firm to form his own company. A year later, Madoch’s high school pal Mike Boyer of Bartlett became a business partner in Toynk.
The business specializes in pop culture items of all sorts, selling them online, at comic book conventions and other shows, to other retailers, and through its own onsite store and website. The trio recently tripled its size, expanding from a warehouse with a storefront in Bensenville to a 95,000-square-foot space in Addison. The company’s sales figures have more than doubled in the last year or so, and a good deal of that success is due to Halloween.
“About 65 percent of our business comes from the costume side,” Madoch said. Of the company’s inventory, 12,000 to 14,000 active items are costumes.
While Toynk offers costumes made by others, seven years ago the company launched offshoot Incogneato Costumes, which makes outfits at factories in China. Seasonal sales typically pick up for Toynk the first week of October and build to a final push the last 10 days or so of the month. Madoch said staff grows from a couple dozen employees to 150 people at the season’s apex, by contrast, making Christmas “a cakewalk.”
The big sellers, he noted, are “usually a surprise.” Last year, hot costumes related to the video games “Angry Birds” and “Minecraft,” Smurf makeup kits, “Where’s Waldo?” outfits, Captain America shields, and perennial favorites from the “Star Wars” saga. Currently, the foul-mouthed teddy bear from the movie “Ted” is a big seller.
According to a press release, Spirit Halloween, the largest seasonal Halloween retailer in North America, has close to 1,000 stores open for the holiday, with 29 locations in the Chicago market. The company predicts its big sellers will include costumes related to “The Avengers,” “Batman,” “Ted” and “The Hunger Games”; cartoon/video games such as “Monster High,” “Adventure Time” and “Angry Birds”; and outfits inspired by “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Monsters on the streets
Zombies, the monster du jour and the subject of much pop culture attention, also are big sellers at Spirit. And the undead helped breathe further life into downtown Elgin last year, with the city’s first “Nightmare on Chicago Street” offering. It will be held Oct. 27 this year. This time, an adjunct “Monster Mash-Up” will take place Oct. 26 and 27 inside the Haight Building, 166 Symphony Way. It will feature horror-related vendors, an art gallery, B-movies, an indie horror movie competition, bands, sideshow and burlesque performers.
In 2011, the zombie-themed event drew about 4,500 people, said Barb Keselica, coordinator for Elgin Special Events & Community Engagement. Organizers anticipate 8,000 will attend this year. While this means more patrons for downtown stores and restaurants, the Nightmare also helps out participating nonprofit agencies.
“Any advance tickets sold by the not-for-profits is 100 percent profit for them. In exchange, the not-for-profits are helping us with the event setup and teardown,” Keselica said.
Last year, the city spent $38,022 on the event and brought in $26,463, mostly through ticket sales, she added. This year’s budget is $50,000, with a goal to break even.
The event grew out of a love of horror movies that Keselica shares with Haney and Acme Design owner Clint Borucki, who both worked alongside Keselica to put the program in place.
“Personally, as a longtime fan of the horror movies, I was able to share my familiarity with the genre material,” Haney said.
Then there are the folks who actively seek what they believe is the real deal.
“More people these days want to go ghost hunting,” said Diane Ladley, founder of Haunted Hometowns and author of “Haunted Aurora” and “Haunted Naperville.”
“They love to do paranormal investigations,” she added. “They’re fascinated by the science behind it. If you learn about the topic, then it doesn’t scare you. There are so many paranormal investigation shows on TV now, and they’re popular and profitable because so many people want to watch them.”
Ladley, who runs tours from spring to Thanksgiving, says she’s getting larger audiences than in past years: “When I sell out a whole tour in July,” she said, “I know Halloween is gaining popularity.”
Among the draws at Elgin’s “Nightmare on Chicago Street” will be a booth from Elgin Paranormal Investigators, a ghost-busting outfit co-founded five years ago by Greg Stout.
“We will be providing hands-on demonstrations of our equipment, as well as answering any questions anyone may have. You can also listen to and view our evidence that we have gathered over the years,” Stout said.
While Halloween is a money-making endeavor for some, Elgin Paranormal Investigators does not charge for its services: “We help our clients with their questions, and in return we have the opportunity to gather evidence of the paranormal that would otherwise be hard to obtain. We also find that the credibility of that evidence holds up against scrutiny when there is no profit involved,” Stout said.
Stout said his group has performed close to 30 investigations into homes and businesses. Its most recent case involved an area home where owners were spooked by noises, lights turning on and off, doors opening and closing, and cold spots.
While interest in the paranormal peaks during Halloween season, there’s plenty who are interested year-round.
“We find that more activity seems to come around during the winter,” Stout said. “It seems to pick up during storms because of the ionization in the atmosphere.”
Of course, scary places are always a big seasonal draw.
Scott Olson of Wonder Lake has been operating haunts for five years, the last three in downtown Elgin, where business has doubled.
Psychosis Haunted House, 200 N. Spring St., which is billed as “20,000-square-feet of sheer madness,” uses 40 to 50 performers and takes a total staff of 60 to operate in what had been a dairy and once warehoused frozen meat products. Olson rents the building all year, which allows him to store his scary sets.
Olson’s business grew out of his own love of the holiday. At one time, homes his family had in Chicago and Melrose Park were so ornately decorated, carloads of people would drive through the neighborhoods to see them.
“Working a haunted house is like being an actor and putting others on edge. It’s powerful and creepy at the same time,” Olson said.
Olson feels what’s helping grow the Halloween business is the immediate availability of information about haunted houses online; television shows that focus on the supernatural; and, by contrast, “Hallmark making it marketable and even more kid-friendly.”
While there’s been a definite resurgence in the commercial aspect of the season, historians say Halloween parties were as popular in Victorian times as they are now. Jennifer Putzier, Tanner House Museum curator for the Aurora Historical Society, described it as a “good opportunity (for younger people) to dress up and look for a spouse.”
The most popular costume for ladies was a “mysterious enchantress type of witch,” said Putzier, who helped organize the museum’s annual Victorian Halloween Party, hosted by Edgar Allen Poe. Divination games were also played, such as tossing a ribbon in the air to see it form the first letter of your future husband’s name, or foretelling how many children you would have. Though it was spooky and mysterious, she said, “Halloween was mostly a social occasion.”
“For the Victorians, life tended to be more fleeting and death was more an accepted part of their daily lives. People died at home and were waked at home, laid out in the parlor for two or three days before the funeral. Though they mourned more elaborately, they were more comfortable with the inevitability of death than we are.”
Halloween, she added, has developed scarier traditions, such as ax murderers and zombies, because death has become “a foreign entity” to us.
Which is good news for businessmen like Olson, whose haunted house not only has shows for children 12 and under, but also offers discounted matinees, and even a ladies’ night.
That’s not all. According to the website, for an additional fee, you can get kidnapped and even buried alive.
Olson said Psychosis also is set up so that performers alert each other who is handling the frightful fun and who is not, so as not to overdo it for the latter. Besides, staff has its own amusement, trying to scare each other.
“We get each other,” Olson said. “And I’m not too proud to say, I’ve been gotten, too.”