Bigger. Better. Bloodier.
Halloween is a $7 billion industry with consumers willing to fork over plenty of cash on anything from costumes for canines to climbing into a coffin for a simulated burial.
Spending has increased 54.7% since 2005, according to the National Retail Federation. The average person is expected to spend $75.03 on decor, costumes and candy this year — down a few bucks from last year, but still enough to make Halloween a booming business.
The categories of spending range from home decor to haunted houses, said Dorothy Creamer, editor of Selling Halloween, a New Jersey-based trade magazine for retailers and haunted attractions.
"Because Halloween has gotten to be so big, everybody says, 'Let's jump on this bandwagon. Let's get a piece of this pie,' " she says. "And now everybody is in the Halloween business."
The amount of money spent on Halloween is nowhere near what is spent on Christmas or back-to-school shopping, of course, but it has increased several billion dollars in recent years.
Trick-or-treating is more than a month away, but Halloween shopping already is ramping up. More than one-third of people in the NRF survey said they start shopping before October.
"Knott's Scary Farm" and other California theme parks already have transformed for the holiday. Tower District restaurants and bars will get in on the action by catering to the more than 1,500 expected for the fourth Zombie Pub Crawl on Oct. 12.
And now a laser tag place is plunging head first into Halloween.
No Surrender Laser Tag, at 5179 N. Blackstone Ave. near Whitie's Pets, transforms into a zombie-killing zone after dark. The 3-month-old business partnered with event promoter Art Silva and the Fresno Zombie Society to add 10,000 square feet of playing space for the month-long attraction. They added a door and took over the back parking lot, where zombie hunters can hide behind an Army Humvee and a Red Cross tent.
Players spend $20 for a session with three games — about twice the regular price — to try to prevent a zombie outbreak, and then battle a 7-foot-tall zombie who tries to infect players.
"Halloween is a big event," co-owner Peter Chang says. "Those haunted house events draw in a lot of people, so we're hoping it will happen here, too."
Like any business, innovation is the key to staying relevant and keeping customers coming back. That's especially true for Halloween-related businesses, whose biggest challenges are balancing scary new effects with keeping costs down, according to the Selling Halloween report.
Paint designed to look like fresh blood costs $125 a gallon, after all.
Haunted houses are a staple of the season. Take Haunted Fresno, in its sixth year of scaring thousands of locals with zombies, 3D cockroaches and evil clowns. It runs on weekends starting Oct. 11 at 665 Fulton St.
Most visitors pay between $18 to $26 to experience all kinds of frights in a 15,000-square-foot former auto shop. About 60% of customers are repeats, says Dexter Morgan — a stage name for the owner and magician who runs the attraction.
Since so many people return every year, he has to provide something new.
"If you don't, you become old news and people stop coming," he says.
New this year are the moving portraits of a deceased family, complete with a little girl who does evil things with a knife.
Morgan has invested in new technology for the seance room where customers communicate with the dead. He won't share details about that one. He doesn't want to give the surprise away.
"I've put in at least $7,000 worth of improvements to make everything ultra realistic and way better than it was before," he says.
Last year, Morgan added an 111/2-foot animatronic winged vampire who startles customers in a graveyard, along with the "Hellevator," a minute-and-a-half long motion simulated thrill ride involving a snapped cable.
He also spent $4,000 last year to add a second "Last ride," after lines for the attraction topped two hours. Customers are closed into real coffins for the simulated ride — complete with sounds, smells and movement, but in complete darkness — from the funeral home to being buried underground.
Morgan travels to trade shows around the country each year to see the latest products, often combining them with his own engineering skills.
Haunted Fresno and its ilk face as many regulations — if not more — as other businesses. That coffin only moves up and down three inches, but it has to have the same state permit that amusement park rides need. And fire regulations abound, too, with even the mulch in the cemetery getting a coat of flame-retardant spray.
Although consumers shell out big bucks to be scared, Haunted Fresno and the zombie laser tag don't rake in as much cash as people might think. The expense of putting on such productions — along with the 36 paid actors at Haunted Fresno — eats into the profit.
Getting decked out
Earnings are likely a bit higher in categories such as home decor. Halloween is second to Christmas when it comes to decorating, and has become more of a "season" than a holiday in recent years, Creamer says.
But it's costumes that are the top Halloween seller.
They're evolving every year, with niche categories, such as pet costumes, growing rapidly.
Consumers are expected spend an estimated $330 million on just pet costumes, according to the retail federation. Yes, you really can buy a Marilyn Monroe costume for your dog — complete with cleavage.
Baby costumes are growing, too. Parents can spend $30 or more to turn their youngster into "Count Cutie" or "Cap'n Stinker," whose pirate drawers include snaps for easy diaper changes.
As Halloween costumes have gotten sexier over the years, manufacturers have responded to demand for tween costumes with longer skirts and higher necklines, says Derick West, manager of the SPIRIT Halloween store at First Street and Shaw Avenue. The store now has a tween aisle featuring age-appropriate Roman empresses and 1950s sweethearts.
Shoppers nationwide actually spend more on adult costumes than kids' costumes. Families regularly drop $150 at the store, West says.
Perhaps it's the connection to dressing up as kids that makes shoppers so willing to spend.
Maria Frausto of Fresno was scouring Halloween stores with her 10-year-old daughter recently to find the perfect Native American costume.
"You always do everything you can for your kid to ... make the best of the holiday," she says. But there are limits.
"I won't spend more than $100 total. I don't go all out like some people do."
The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6431, email@example.com or @BethanyClough on Twitter. Read her blog on fresnobeehive.com.