That cackling you hear into the Halloween night isn't a witch or vampire. It's a retailer or costume manufacturer totaling up receipts.
Just how much money Halloween generates is hard to estimate, since it includes many different industries: toys, costumes, greeting cards and decorations and candy.
But it's big business, however you look at it.
Hallmark Cards estimates the business excluding candy sales at $400-million, while the National Confectioners Association predicts $784-million in Halloween candy will be sold this year.
Playthings, a toy industry magazine, says Halloween is the second-biggest selling season for mass retailers after Christmas.
Anything that brings in that kind of money is pretty serious stuff, right?
Halloween is a time when everyone _ even retailers _ can cast off their businesslike airs and get bizarre.
In a recent newspaper insert, Richfield Farms, a garden supply center in Clifton, N.J., advertised the usual grass seed, flower bulbs and fresh apple cider, plus "scary masks, makeup, body parts, bullet holes, scars, teeth, tongues, ears, warts, blood capsules, noses, shrunken heads."
Richfield and other garden suppliers also sell Halloween lawn ornaments, for the growing number of homeowners who load up their front yards with light-up plastic pumpkins, ghosts and witches using enough electricity to rival the kilowattage of many Christmas displays.
Other retailers you wouldn't think of as traditional Halloween stores don't miss a trick, finding ways to turn the season to their advantage.
Waldenbooks, a national chain, fills windows with ghouls to advertise occult and horror offerings. Opticians drop a few rubber spiders and cobwebs among the eyeglass frames in their displays. They may not have any Halloween merchandise, but it never hurts to put your customers in a holiday mood.
For children, Halloween is as much about candy as costumes and parties. So candymakers produce millions of miniature candy bars and marshmallow pumpkins. And candy corn will inundate the country.
You either love candy corn or hate it. Many people who eat it find they can't stop. Luckily for them, candymakers turn it out by the billions of pieces.
E.J. Brach Corp., a leading Chicago-based candymaker, says it will make 14-million pounds of candy corn all year, 80 percent of it for Halloween. It makes 30-million pieces a day, with machines pouring first the white layer, then the orange and yellow layers, into tiny triangular molds.
They used to do it by hand; today, along with almost everything else, the manufacture of candy corn is automated and computerized.
Is it good for you? Probably only if you need a sugar kick. The ingredients in Brach's version are sugar, corn syrup, salt, confectioner's glaze, honey, dextrose, gelatin, artificial flavor and yellow and red dyes.
But as Brach's points out, it's fat- and cholesterol-free, so all you have to worry about are the 100 calories that go with every 24 pieces.
Fads are as important at Halloween as they are any other time of the year. So Disguise Inc. has made more than 2-million Power Rangers costumes for children this year.
"It is the most popular Halloween costume ever," said Disguise executive vice president Steven Cohen.
The well-dressed trick-or-treater may also be seen wearing outfits based on the Disney movie The Lion King.
Adults tend to lean toward vampires, witches and French maids. "It's obviously fantasy," Cohen said.
It's also mood, biorhythms and bad hair days.
"I'm convinced if you got to the store and you've had a good day, you want to be one thing and if you've had a bad day, you want to be something else."
Of course, there are also people who just want to look disgusting, often at any price.
For them, Everything Halloween, a store at Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, N.J., offers the coup de gruesomeness, The Predator mask, a $260 mass of horns, teeth, warts and lesions.
Fly by night
Halloween is a big cash machine for discount stores like Wal-Mart, or specialty retailers like Party City, which has 100 stores across the country. They make a lot of money from costumes, candy and decorations before moving on to the next season, Christmas.
But for hundreds of entrepreneurs, Halloween is a time to make quick money and vanish into the night. They own or manage temporary stores selling only Halloween merchandise. Some are independents, while others are chains.
Tony Bianchi, co-manager of Halloween Adventure in the East Village in Manhattan, designs displays for stores and companies most of the year. At the end of August, he turns into a retailer, selling masks, costumes and garish props.
A 10-year veteran of the business, Bianchi knows his stuff and customers.
"Blood is always popular," he said, speaking to a reporter while he hung black and red feather boas on racks.
Passing a stand with leather whips and similar items, he pointed and said, "Handcuffs _ very popular." Nearby he pointed to some rubber novelties: "These are tongue extenders. These are great."
The merchandise ranges from more innocent children's costumes (princesses, pumpkins, clowns) to salacious adult outfits (flapper dresses and French maid outfits for both sexes).