Behold Halloween, the Frankenstein's monster of American holidays. Cobbled together from spare parts of other traditions (the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, Great Britain's Guy Fawkes Night and All Saints' Day among them), it has grown to become the second-largest holiday in the United States in dollars spent, behind only Christmas.
Despite the grim economic climate and predictions that Americans will cut back their Halloween spending by 15 percent this year, the National Retail Federation estimates that we still plan to shell out somewhere in the ballpark of $4.75 billion for fake blood, pumpkin cookie cutters, fog machines, luminarias, "come dressed as your inner self parties" and assorted sweet treats.
The single biggest spending category, for the fourth consecutive year, according to the federation's 2009 study, is the $1.75 billion Americans plan to drop on costumes for adults, children and pets.
So, how did marking the change of seasons from summer to fall and celebration of the harvest become the kind of freewheeling nationwide Mardi Gras that makes otherwise normal adults kick back in office cubicles kitted out as the Bee Girl from Blind Melon's "No Rain" video or the Pillsbury Doughboy while their kids go banging on doors demanding candy from strangers on the last day of October?
David J. Skal, author of "Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween," suggests we start with a brief history lesson.
"Adult costume parties on Halloween first (became) popular during the 1920s, and the term 'trick or treat' only appeared at the beginning of World War II," Skal said.
And the growing fascination with costumes?
"America has always celebrated the idea that you can grow up to be anything you want," Skal said, adding that children of the 1950s and 1960s popularized that aspect of the holiday and then dragged it along with them as they grew into adulthood.
"In the last few decades, the Halloween machine has been especially driven by the boomers," he writes, "a generation noted for a marked reluctance to give up the things of childhood."
But baby boomer bacchanalia is only part of the equation. It has also grown into a kind of unofficial, secular kickoff to a two-month-long series of holiday celebrations that won't truly subside until the calendar flips over to the new year.
"What makes it different, from, say, Christmas or Hanukkah is that while it may have religious roots, it's become this nonreligious holiday," says Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist, behavior expert and associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "And, on the societal level, short of Mardi Gras, there's not really another occasion on the calendar that allows us to wear a costume — it's the one time all year where that abnormal behavior is the norm, and it gives us an excuse to relive our childhood."
Klapow says that escape from the bonds of adulthood, if just for an evening, is even more important to people in times of economic and societal turmoil.
"It's one of the simple pleasures you associate with (childhood) —like eating an ice cream cone or riding on a merry-go-round."