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Arts & Culture

Watch Out: This Halloween, Horror Is Back

People are turning to creepy clown faces and bloody ski masks this year, inspired by this year’s great horror movies and to escape the real world

A creepy clown mask on display at Total Fright in Crystal City, Va.
A creepy clown mask on display at Total Fright in Crystal City, Va.

Marshia Miller of Washington D.C. is looking through the back of Total Fright, a Halloween party store, for a costume for her 12-year-old son. Wispy ghosts with glowing green eyes hang from the ceiling. Towards the back of the shop, the ceilings are covered with bloody ski masks, evil clown faces, and zombie heads. Walls are lined in packaged costumes for serial killers, escaped inmates, and famous monsters from horror films.

Miller says her son usually “likes fighting crime and things of that nature.” But for the first time this year “now he wants something scary.”

It’s official: horror is back.

Last year, politically-themed costumes were the rage. Before that, it was film and television show characters. Now, thanks to a resurgence of scary movies and a desire to escape the real world, costume distributors and retailers say it’s all about fright.

Miller picks up a plastic skeleton mask with a special button that makes it spurt out fake blood. “This should be fine,” she sighs, grimacing at the mask.

“I said, ‘it can’t be too scary’ because I don’t want him to scare his little sister, but then he said it might be his last year to go trick-or-treating,” Miller says.

Interest in horror comes and goes in cycles, says Howard Beige, executive vice president for Rubie’s Costume Company. The company says it’s the world’s largest costume maker.

“We had been [in] a lull period until last year. That was when we noticed the pick-up. And then this year’s popularity is growing again from there,” he says. “So, we’ve definitely noticed that, for Halloween, horror is back.”

Beige says the last time Rubie’s saw a trend like this was a decade ago, around 2005 or 2006. This year, he says he can point to exactly what spurred the interest in horror-themed costumes: It.

“There’s no question there was an explosion right after September 8. September 8 is the day the It movie came out and the very next day, we got calls from retailers saying ‘We need It products!'” Beige says.

Once the movie started performing well at the box office, he says knew it would be a Halloween staple. The following week, Rubie’s started manufacturing It paraphernalia, including makeup kits, latex masks, jumpsuits, and glue-on scars.

A selection of horror masks at Total Fright in Crystal City, Va.
A selection of horror masks at Total Fright in Crystal City, Va.

So, why the sudden interest in horror? NPR’s television critic Eric Deggans says it’s a perfect storm of this year’s great horror movies and a heavy news cycle that’s making people want to escape reality.

“It just seems to me that Get Out and It were really good movies. Sometimes, when a movie is successful, it’s successful because it’s good. They’re among the best films of the year, regardless of what they’re about,” Deggans says.

Deggans says horror films are constantly underestimated for how powerful they can be.

“If you’re worried about the political situation, North Korea, terrorism, or the economy — that’s a cycle that’s going on in your head, but it’s focused on very real, existing, tangible things. So, to experience a movie that tells that story, but tells it in a different way and makes it more personal, can be cathartic,” Deggans says.

Back at Total Fright, Lorenzo Caltagirone, the store’s owner, says, while he doesn’t see a huge increase in horror costumes across the board, he has definitely seen an uptick in sales for evil clown costumes, thanks to the movie It.

“In fact, we pretty much sold out of our Pennywise costumes and we have some masks left, but have a bunch of other Pennywise-inspired, evil clown costumes that have done really well for us this year,” he says.

A Pennywise mask from the movie It.
A Pennywise mask from the movie It.

As Anuj Christian mills around the store, he’s looking for a Pennywise costume for himself.

“It’s easy to scare people and that’s very popular right now. I like to hide in the bushes and jump out of nowhere and scare people,” Christian chuckles.

A store clerk tells him they’ve sold out of Pennywise costumes. Christian looks dejected.

“I would get a mask if I get a costume, but I want to get the costume in a small size. I checked online and they’re all sold out. But this store doesn’t have it either, so I might try a couple of different stores … we’ll see,” Christian says.

But this close to Halloween, there might not be any evil clown costumes left on the shelves.

Adhiti Bandlamudi is a Kroc Fellow at NPR

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