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What the fright? How did Halloween turn into such a huge holiday?

Juan Acevedo, 21, of Zephyrhills stirs up scares at the Bedlam 3D haunted house at Scream-A-Geddon in Dade City. (2015)
Published Oct. 2, 2015

Not that many years ago, Halloween consisted of a Peanuts special on television, a few hours of dressed-up kids stomping house to house to fill pillow cases with candy, and maybe a costume party at school or the library for older kids or adults.

And that was it.

Today, the Halloween season starts in September with pumpkin spice coffee and beer. Not long after, retail chains, pop-up stores and thrift shops devote aisles and aisles to costumes and accessories.

On television, monthlong scary movie marathons start before summer temperatures cool and you can be sure the movie theater will have at least one scary movie series sequel. Quaint costume parties have grown into throbbing block parties and VIP costume galas, while neighborhoods like St. Petersburg's Old Northeast have turned trick-or-treating into an all-night, family-friendly extravaganza.

All this hoopla has turned Halloween into a major windfall for retailers and entertainment companies.

After all, 157 million Americans are expected to celebrate the holiday this year, and they will spend $6.9 billion doing it.

So what transformed Halloween — that once tiny fall holiday before the biggies Thanksgiving and Christmas — into such a mammoth?

For one, it's the anti-Thanksgiving and anti-Christmas. It's a holiday that thrives on creativity, and isn't so cookie-cutter with matching holiday sweaters and mandatory trips to Uncle Bob's and Aunt Karen's in frozen Ohio.

"Christmas is great and it's fun to be around family, but those holidays feel so commercial now," said Allison Kay, 27, a self-proclaimed Halloween enthusiast from Pasco County who works at, of all things, a blood bank. "Halloween is the day you get to go out and be weird. There's no family obligations, no family photos to look nice for."

But retail experts say there's more to it than that. Halloween has always had a hey-look-at-me quality to it, which is exacerbated by social media today. Put together a clever outfit for you and your kid or your dog or your cat — and people spend weeks doing just that — and post a photo with the correct hashtag and you're sure to get a ton of likes and perhaps even go viral.

"Thanks to social media, families can't get dressed up without posting a photo on Facebook or Instagram. That buzz that social media generates brings friendly competition to a whole other level — from costume ideas to who has the better decorations outside the house," said Jeff Green, a retail analyst in Phoenix.

Halloween also used to be almost entirely about kids and trick-or-treating. But it is just as much an adult holiday today, which explains why humor, camp and nostalgia are all modern Halloween traits. At any party, you're likely to see costumes that are funny, culturally relevant or that spoof on the '70s, '80s or '90s.

"It's almost like Halloween has become the extension of Comic-Con," said Green, referring to an annual comics convention that draws thousands of super fans who come dressed as their favorite characters. "That's gotten so much visibility and buzz over the years, it's beginning to translate into Halloween venues, and they can charge more money because of it."

Adults-only nighttime events, which are packed with gruesome haunted houses and booze, have become an offseason moneymaker for theme parks such as Busch Gardens and Universal Studios. Haunted house attractions generated more than $300 million last year, according to the trade group Haunted Attraction Association.

This year, Tampa's main theme park attraction hired Robin Cowie, producer of The Blair Witch Project, to lead the annual fright fest Howl-O-Scream at all three Busch Gardens parks in Tampa, Williamsburg, Va., and San Antonio, Texas.

It's a business model that feeds off putting audiences in uncomfortable situations, a feeling people really seek out only around Halloween.

"People get a kick out of being scared," Cowie said. "It will be interesting to see how technology will continue to change horror and the entertainment industry. Theme parks are in an interesting position to experiment with this."

This year, Ashley Carnifax, a teacher from Melbourne, will go to Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando and attend the wedding of a friend who purposely is having it on Halloween.

"It's like the only time of year where you have an excuse to act like a kid again," she said. "If it was more than a once-a-year thing, I don't think it would have such a draw. It's a time to splurge."

Halloween spending across the country rebounded after the recession at a surprising rate. From 2009 to 2012, it nearly doubled to $8 billion. While it's tailed off in recent years, the holiday still holds its weight.

"It was a strange time when we were predicting that Halloween spending was going to be up right after the start of the recession," said National Retail Federation spokeswoman Kathy Allen. Christmas spending was way down the same year.

"The bottom line is Halloween is a nongift-giving holiday. There's no emotional connection — it's just digging into your wallet and seeing how much extra money you have to work with," she said.

The National Retail Federation, which tracks spending on major holidays, has noticed increases in spending every few years on Halloween, Allen said. She attributes most of that to replacing accessories.

"It's still a holiday that's accessible to most people. You don't have to cook for family or buy presents, and you can spend $5 on a costume," said author Lesley Bannatyne, who has written extensively about Halloween.

Whole companies have spun out of the holiday such as Spirit Halloween stores and Halloween Express, which open more than 1,000 temporary stores in empty big-box lots for a few weeks to sell costumes and accessories.

Unlike Christmas or Easter or even St. Patrick's Day, Halloween isn't restricted by religion or history or tradition. It can change over time — and it obviously has.

"That's the freedom to it," Bannatyne said. "You can make your own traditions."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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