A dark and scary economy is not going to spook consumers this Halloween. A recent National Retail Federation survey shows that seven in 10 Americans (170 million) will get their haunt on this year, the most in the NRF's 10-year history, and will pump $8 billion into the economy. What is it that makes Halloween more seductive than a vampire's kiss for consumers?
It's more than just a last shot at fun and games before the winter solstice ices us, suggests a Wake Forest University academic. There are deeper reasons for the spending spree and our intense interest in vampires and zombies, said English professor Eric Wilson, author of "Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). It's because humans have a natural fascination with the macabre, Wilson said.
Halloween puts people in touch with their inner little monsters, he said.
Miguel De La Torre, professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, agrees.
"People enjoy flirting with the dark side and spooky characters," he said. "Since the earliest accounts of the Halloween celebration, there have been tales of dark chaos, and costumes have been included in interpretations of the observation. People love a good scare, especially when we know we are inherently safe."
Humans' fascination with the dark side has made Halloween the second-largest commercial holiday behind Christmas.
It provides a perverse pleasure to celebrate death and destruction, Wilson said, particularly in a time of financial crisis when many come face to face with their limitations and mortality in unpleasant ways. There is a kind of ecstasy in transforming into another creature and dressing up as dead things such as zombies and vampires, he said.
It also gives people permission to do openly what is usually done in secret: wear masks.
"To get along in the world, we constantly pretend to be nicer or happier than we really are, especially during a difficult economy, when to get and keep jobs, we are expected to put a good face on things," Wilson said. "On Halloween, it's okay to come out as a mask-wearer and feel relief we no longer have to hide."
But the root cause of humans' fascination may be that kinship is forged with monsters because they are possessed by an uncontrollable force – neither zombies in their quest for brains nor vampires in their quest for blood are able to stop or reason through their hunger.
"We can imagine the satisfaction of living without accountability, casting off humanity and turning into machines without morals," Wilson said. "Zombies overcome death, vampires rule time, ghosts vanquish space and vampires and other shape-shifters transcend a stable identity."
And they are simply scary and people like to be scared.
"It's the ultimate thrill ride," Wilson said.