The U.S. is a society of consumers, and an economy based primarily on consumer spending, so it's no surprise that Halloween is celebrated in consumerist ways. Let's take a look at some interesting facts about Halloween consumption, with data from National Retail Federation's "Halloween Headquarters," and consider what they mean from a sociological perspective.
- 171 million Americans-more than half the entire national population-will celebrate Halloween in 2016.
- Halloween is the nation's third favorite holiday, but second favorite for those between the ages of 18-34. It is less popular with older folks, and more popular among women than men, according to a 2011 Harris Interactive poll.
- Not just for kids, Halloween is an important holiday for adults too. Nearly half the adult population will dress in costume for the occasion.
- Total U.S. spending for Halloween 2016 is expected to reach 8.4 billion dollars--an increase of more than 3 billion dollars since 2007. That includes $3.1 billion spent on costumes, $2.5 billion on candy, and $2.4 billion on decorations.
- The average person will spend about $83 celebrating Halloween.
- About a third of all adults will throw or attend a Halloween party.
- One in five adults will visit a haunted house.
- Sixteen percent will dress their pets in costume.
- In 2016 costume choices among adults differ by age bracket. Among Millennials, Batman characters take the number one spot, followed by witch, animal, Marvel or DC superhero, and vampire. The number one costume among older adults is a witch, followed by pirate, political costume, vampire, and then Batman character.
- Action and superhero characters are the top choice for children in 2016, followed by princess, animal, Batman character, and Star Wars character.
- "Pumpkin" wins the top spot for pets, followed by hot dog, bumble bee, lion, Star Wars character, and devil.
So, what does all this mean, sociologically speaking? Halloween is clearly a very important holiday in the U.S. We can see this in not only the patterns in participation and spending but in what people do to celebrate the holiday. Early sociologist Émile Durkheim observed that rituals are occasions upon which people in a culture or society come together to reaffirm their values, beliefs, and morals. By participating in rituals together, we activate and reaffirm our "collective conscience"--the sum of those beliefs and ideas we share in common, that take on a life and force of their own due to their collective nature. In celebration of Halloween, those rituals include dressing in costume, trick-or-treating, throwing and attending costume parties, decorating homes, and going to haunted houses.
This raises the question of what values, beliefs, and morals are reaffirmed through our mass participation in these rituals. Halloween costumes in the U.S. have evolved away from the holiday's social origins as taunts and mocking of death, and toward popular culture. Sure, "witch" is a popular costume for women, and zombies and vampires are also in the top ten, but the variations of them trend more toward "sexy" than scary or evocative of death. So, it would be false to conclude that the rituals affirm values and beliefs of Christianity and Paganism. They point instead to the importance placed on having fun and being sexy in our society.
But, what also stands out to this sociologist is the consumerist nature of the holiday and the rituals. The primary thing we do to celebrate Halloween is buy stuff. Yes, we go out and get together and have fun, but none of that happens without first shopping and spending money--a collective 8.4 billion dollars. Halloween, like other consumerist holidays (Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter, Father's Day and Mother's Day), is an occasion upon which we reaffirm the importance of consuming in order to fit in with the norms of society.
Thinking back to Mikhail Bakhtin's description of medieval carnivale in Europe as a release valve for the tensions that arise in a highly stratified society, we could also surmise that Halloween serves a similar function in the U.S. today. Currently economic inequality and poverty are at their greatest in the nation's history. We are faced with an incessant onslaught of terrible news about global climate change, war, violence, discrimination and injustice, and disease. In the midst of this, Halloween presents an attractive opportunity to take off our own identity, put on another, shake off our cares and concerns, and exist as someone else for an evening or two.
Ironically, we may be further exacerbating the problems we face in the process, by perpetuating the hypersexualization of women and racism via costume, and by handing our hard-earned money over to already wealthy corporations that exploit laborers and the environment to bring all the Halloween goods to us. But we sure have fun doing it.