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Fear for your wallet

Halloween spending per person is expected to soar this year

Halloween (JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE ) Maureen Reen (right) of Brighton parepared bags of Halloween candy with her sons. Pictured from left: James Reen, 6, Jack Reen, 5, and Emett Reen, 4.
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / October 25, 2011

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When Maureen Reen was growing up, her family celebrated Halloween by putting a pumpkin on the front stoop of their Canton home. “That was as festive as it got,’’ she said.

But by mid-October, the Brighton mom had already made three trips - and counting - to Target in Watertown. She had tombstones and spider webs to buy, Halloween cupcakes to decorate, ghost goodie bags to assemble, Halloween candles to light, a Halloween gingerbread house to make.

“It’s overwhelming,’’ said Reen, 34. “I’m not a creative person, but I want to make happy memories for my children.’’

Yesterday’s happy memory: scoring an enormous amount of free candy and wolfing it down before breakfast behind Mom’s back. Today’s happy memory: living in a world that’s been turned into a Halloween theme park.

With Halloween products ranging from themed Hefty bags to Barbie pumpkin-carving kits to Oreos in five “boo-rific’’ shapes, it’s no wonder the National Retail Federation is predicting that Halloween spending will hit $6.9 billion this year.

That’s up a stunning 18 percent from last year’s estimated $5.8 billion bonanza. Santa, watch your back. Holiday retail sales, for Christmas and other winter holidays, are expected to rise only 2.8 percent over last year, according to the NRF (although overall Christmas spending remains much larger, over $400 billion).

With more people than ever planning to observe Halloween - 68.6 percent of Americans, compared with 52.5 percent in 2005, according to the NRF - the question has to be asked: What the devil is going on?

Halloween experts point to a variety of factors working in the holiday’s favor. (The holiday is so big it now has its own specialists.)

For starters, there’s the rise of the “kidult,’’ that is, young adults who still enjoy the trappings of childhood, which has turned a holiday once meant mainly for children into an event for grown-ups. Improved manufacturing and market-research capabilities mean companies can release short-term specialty products without fear of being left with huge numbers of unsold items. Advances in technology also mean more attractive home-fog machines.

And don’t forget Rover. The NRF predicts owners will spend $310 million on pet costumes this year. Pity the Havanese forced to go as himself.

And no, it’s not just your imagination. The candy really does come out earlier and earlier, according to the National Confectioners Association. The trend began in the 1980s, and was driven mostly by big box retailers, who started using valuable shelf space to promote Halloween along with back-to-school items, according to spokeswoman Susan Smith. We’re now at the point, she wrote in an e-mail, where “the two promotional events [have become] combined.’’

In perhaps the ultimate sign of its arrival, Halloween has started being mentioned in the same breath as the biggest holiday of all. “Thanksgiving used to be the start of the Christmas season, but now it starts at Halloween,’’ said George John, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

What’s not to like? Unlike some other holidays, Halloween doesn’t demand you schlep across the country on the busiest travel day of the year or cook for 25 people, each with his or her own food issues. On Halloween, dysfunctional family members are not your problem.

As Kristy Welker, a Target spokeswoman, put it: “It’s a stress-free holiday.’’

Other than the pressure to decorate with just the right grim reaper, that is. For the most part, Halloween demands little and gives a lot.

“You can be whatever you want and it’s accepted,’’ said Anne-Marie Cardillo, 39, of Watertown. In real life, she’s a contract administrator for Tufts Health Plan, but this Halloween she will turn into the fishnet-stockinged leg lamp from “A Christmas Story.’’ Said Cardillo: “It’s better than Christmas.’’

If there’s one downside, she said, it’s that she already has so many Halloween-themed decorations there’s nothing left to buy. “I’m at capacity. I’ve got graves, skeletons, a witch that looks like it slammed into the side of the house, black lace curtains that lace up . . .’’

The NRF predicts that consumers will spend $1.88 billion on Halloween décor this year, and while there’s no doubt the economy can use the Halloween bump, it can put pressure on individual budgets.

“I wish I wasn’t so obsessed, but I am,’’ said Cheryl Schubert, 48, a nurse from Waltham. “It’s costly.’’

Schubert told herself that she had enough ghoulish decorations, but when she spotted two large rats, $22 each, at a party store, she weakened. “They were creepy,’’ she said, cheerfully describing the fake blood in the rodents’ mouths.

It’s that love of the macabre, said Lesley Bannatyne, of Somerville, author of “Halloween Nation,’’ that also explains the day’s growing popularity. “Fear and fantasy are about some of the strongest human emotions you can deal with, and Halloween has both of them,’’ said Bannatyne.

“It’s a holiday that’s both extreme and tolerant,’’ she added. “There are things you can do and wear on Halloween that you can’t do on November first. And there’s a big nostalgic element to it. There are people who loved Halloween as kids and won’t give it up.’’

This year adults will spend more on their own costumes ($1.21 billion) than on costumes for kids ($1 billion), a trend that’s also picking up steam. Last year, the first year the NRF tracked child and adult costumes separately, spending on costumes for grown-ups was $990 million, compared with $840 million for the children’s costumes.

“When I was a kid,’’ said NRF spokeswoman Kathy Grannis, “there was no such thing as a 19-year-old walking around the neighborhood in a costume. But within the last decade the holiday has turned a page and given adults an opportunity to celebrate without feeling they are reverting back to childhood.’’

Indeed, at iParty on Boylston Street recently, a group of workers from iProspect, a digital marketing company, were shopping for a cubicle decorating contest. “It’s a nice bonding opportunity,’’ said Tyler Brewer, 22, a search marketing intern.

Meanwhile, with all that’s changed about Halloween, there is one constant: the role of candy as both treat and torturer. “I try to buy things I don’t like,’’ said Laura Demore, 39, a Watertown mother of three boys.

“I have no interest in York Peppermint Patties,’’ she declared in the candy aisle of Target, as she searched, unsuccessfully, for candies that would not tempt her, and offered a rationalization for buying universally loved treats: “You don’t want to be the raisin house.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.