By Carol Matlack When Patrick Barouhiel starting selling Halloween costumes at his party-supply store in Paris' trendy Marais neighborhood a few years ago, most of the buyers were homesick Americans. No more. "Our clientele has changed radically. Now it's mostly French," says Barouhiel as he rings up sales in his shop, which in mid-October is jammed with everything from glow-in-the-dark fangs to a life-size papier-maché model of a witch that sells for a frightening $420.
It's b-a-a-ck! Halloween, which was born in the Old World 2,000 years ago but was virtually unknown on the Continent as recently as 1999, is enjoying a big resurgence with European consumers. Retailers' associations say spending on Halloween paraphernalia and candy in the region's three biggest economies -- Germany, France, and Italy -- will top $800 million this year and shows no signs of slowing.
"There's a huge opportunity," says Beno? Pousset, chief executive of César, a Paris-based costume company. "It's crazy, because if you'd mentioned the holiday to anyone five years ago, they'd probably have given you a blank stare."
WILD ABOUT HARRY. What's driving the Halloween craze? Partly it's an organized effort by major U.S. brands to export the holiday to Europe. The Disneyland Paris theme park has been promoting Halloween heavily since 2001. During October, the park is renamed "Halloweenland," with daily theme parades and a squad of pumpkin-head characters wandering through the grounds with buckets and brushes, splashing things with orange paint. The park has even come up with a mascot, "Ed the Pumpkin," and has installed displays showing his "ancestors," beginning with pumpkin-headed cavemen. "It has been so successful that other Disney (DIS) parks are interested in the pumpkin-head character," says François Leroux, vice-president for entertainment at the park.
European businesses are doing their part to sell Halloween, too. Retail outlets of Carrefour -- the French equivalent of Wal-Mart (WMT) -- are festooned with orange and black decorations and sell a full range of costumes and specially packaged Halloween candy. Wal-Mart itself has a chain of stores in Germany with similar offerings. "After American companies like McDonald's (MCD) and Toys 'R' Us (TOY) imported the concept, local brands like [German candymaker] Haribo and [Swiss toymaker] Playmobil have started advertising Halloween," says Astrid Seefled, a marketing executive in Cologne, Germany. "The success of Harry Potter with its imagery of magicians and witches has probably fueled the trend as well."
In Italy, some towns now sponsor Halloween festivals, and the Gardaland amusement park near Verona has decked itself out to look like the set of a horror film during the month of October. "Every year in Italy, interest in Halloween doubles," says Massimiliano Marras, a Web-site designer who has created an Italian-language site that gives ideas for Halloween parties and recipes. There's even a spa in the town of Sassuelo offering a Halloween weekend of beauty treatments based on pumpkin cream.
BIGGER NEXT YEAR. Halloween parties are catching on, too -- although you won't find many fairy princess or superhero costumes. Europeans favor classic characters -- ghosts, witches, and vampires. Door-to-door trick-or-treating is still relatively rare across the Continent, though it is becoming more popular in France.
Anti-American sentiment over the war in Iraq doesn't seem to be scaring the Europeans off. Pousset says his company's revenues are up 12% this year, largely fueled by growing Halloween sales in Europe, which are expected to hit $7.5 million this year. At Disneyland Paris, Leroux says management is already planning an even bigger Halloween investment for next year, based on in-house surveys that show this year's promotion has been a big hit with customers.
The surprising thing is that Halloween took so long to get back across the Atlantic. The holiday has its roots in an ancient Celtic new year festival. Other traditions, such as bobbing for apples, were adopted from Roman festivals, while trick-or-treating comes from the medieval Christian custom of begging for sweets on All Saints Day, Nov. 1.
RISING FROM THE DEAD. Halloween was introduced in the U.S. by Irish immigrants in the 1840s. But while it eventually became a major commercial event in the U.S., with an estimated $3.12 billion in projected sales this year, Halloween virtually disappeared in Europe outside Britain and Ireland, where it's widely celebrated in much the same way as in the U.S.
Now that Halloween is...uh, rising from the dead, one quintessentially spooky European locale is getting in on the action. In early October, the Romanian government announced it had broken ground on Dracula theme park. The park is located near the burial site of Vlad the Impaler, the 15th-century warrior nobleman on whom the Dracula legend is based. Sponsors are betting it will attract a million visitors a year.
Not all Europeans are embracing Halloween. It hasn't made many inroads in Spain, Portugal, or Greece, or in conservative Catholic regions such as Southern Italy. And Halloween has to compete against long-established European holidays, especially Carnival, the traditional late-winter Catholic celebration that's known as Mardi Gras in the U.S. It's observed across most of Europe and also features costumes, parades, and parties.
But for more and more European kids, Halloween is becoming a fixture on the annual holiday calendar. "I have three small girls, and they are really excited about Halloween," says Stacy Charmed, a 27-year-old Swiss-born homemaker shopping at Barouhiel's Paris store. Charmed says she's organizing a Halloween party and plans to serve pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie? Isn't that for Thanksgiving? Well, nobody said Europe's Halloween would be exactly like America's. With reporting by Rachel Tiplady and bureau reports
Matlack is a Paris-based correspondent for BusinessWeek