This Year, It's a Hollywood Halloween

So long soldier and fireman costumes. It's back to fantasy and fun, à la Pirates of the Caribbean and Spider-Man

Here's a scary thought: Come Halloween, you'll likely be seeing a lot of middle-aged men hollering "Argh!" and "Shiver me timbers!" in annoying accents as they clamber out of minivans and trudge off to costume parties. Thanks to Walt Disney's (DIS ) summer hit Pirates of the Caribbean, starring a hammy Johnny Depp, pirate getups are among the most popular costumes for adults this season. Retailer Party City (PCTY ), with 497 stores across the U.S., reports that, so far, its pirate business has more than doubled over last year. "It has really taken off because of the movie," says Scott Wentworth, Party City's divisional vice-president for seasonal merchandising.

Indeed, it's shaping up to be a Hollywood Halloween, industry experts say. Say "so long" to the cop, firefighter, and soldier costumes. Those were big the last two seasons after the nation was profoundly moved by law enforcement's bravery following the September 11 terrorist attacks. For girls this year, it's back to being princesses, with Aurora from Disney's animated classic Sleeping Beauty topping the list. The newly minted DVD of the movie has, conveniently, just arrived on retailer shelves.


  Most popular for boys nationwide, is Spider-Man, industry experts say. Though the movie version of the superhero's exploits was released last year, MTV is currently airing an animated Spidey series, keeping the web-slinging crime-fighter fresh in youngsters' minds. Party City has already sold 12,000 Spider-Man costumes in the 4-6 size alone, Wentworth says. And the public's mad scramble to find the right costumes is perhaps still a week or two away.

The yearning to be princesses and action heroes for a night actually runs deep in American society, industry experts say. "When we had September 11, everyone went for the hardworking army, police officer, and rescuer costumes," says Deborah Dalva, senior marketing manager for Disguise, which sells Halloween costumes to mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart (WMT ), Kmart (KMRT ), Target (TGT ), and Toys "R" Us (TOY ). "But historically, there has been a strong princess and action-hero demographic out there."

And with war, recalls, business scandals, Washington leaks, unemployment, and hurricanes, who can blame folks for wanting to drift back to fantasyland. After all, superheroes usually nab the bad guys and save the day, sleeping princesses most often awake to live happily ever after. "This year is an escape from reality," says Barry Shapiro, president of costumemaker Paper Magic. "People want to let loose and forget everything."


  Perhaps that's why masks of political figures aren't selling as briskly as in past years. The best-seller in this category is a George W. Bush mask, says Paula White, owner of The Fun Shop, a costume supplier in Lafayette (La.). She notes: "He's the President, so everyone wants to imitate him." No. 2 is a mask of the previous White House occupant, Bill Clinton. Masks of the Terminator could get a boost if actor Arnold Schwarzenegger is elected California's governor, but if he loses, it's hasta la vista to his Halloween marketability.

Definitely not hot are masks of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, both apparently still on the run. "It's too real," says Halloween expert Lesley Bannatyne, Somerville (Mass.)-based author of A Halloween How-To.

One reality, however, has trick-or-treaters and retailers truly pumped. Oct. 31 falls on a weekend night -- Friday -- instead of a weekday, meaning the Halloween industry is going to cash in on the greater number of people buying costumes, partying at costume balls, and ringing doorbells for candy this year. "You're going to get a lot more celebrating," Disguise's Dalva says.


  Halloween retail sales, which just started ramping up last week, could increase as much as 50% this year, predicts Shapiro. Fright night is already a big business, second only to Christmas. In 2002, Halloween raked in $6.9 billion, with $1.5 billion of that spent on costumes. The rest went to candy and accessories, things like fake blood and bunny tails.

Other costumes experts say are selling this year include the The Hulk, Cat in the Hat, SpongeBob, and Japanese figure Yu-Gi-Oh for kids. Lots of adults will probably be sporting hip black duds a la The Matrix: Reloaded and flapper dresses inspired by Chicago.

Old Halloween standards such as clown, devil, and witch costumes will be in abundance, too. But the outfits are likely to be shorter and more revealing this year, industry experts say. Which gets at the great Halloween costume paradox: "Even when you want to look your worst, you want to look your best," says Shapiro. And that's precisely the thinking that the costume industry will be banking on in this very world-weary year.

By Eric Wahlgren in New York

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