By Ashley Powers
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS-Want a peek at the nation's psyche? Open your door on Halloween.
You'll see adults dolled up as Chicago flappers, toting rhinestone-studded machine guns. You'll hear an "Argh!" Pirates are hot. Miniature Batmen, Spider-Men and Disney Princesses will peer up and chime, "Trick or treat?"
America is ready to let loose again, retailers say. We need to. Times are tough.
The popularity of airy and fantastical costumes - particularly for adults - mirrors the nation's mood, say retailers and academics. Wearing something outlandish offers people who are weary of the rocky economy and the dreary news of war a mental break - at least for a day.
"Some of my friends have survived layoff after layoff with families to support," says Sonia Martinez, 38, as she rifles through racks of fringed and sequined dresses at Queen of Hearts costume shop in Plano, Texas. "With the economy being how it is, and everyone being stressed out, you can just let loose."
Martinez had already bought a sorceress costume - a black, purple and gold rayon dress, high-waisted, with a tiara.
How do you think about troubles in a get-up like that?
Two years ago, it was nearly impossible for people to cloak themselves in traditional gear. Falling so close to Sept. 11, a Halloween outfitted in gore and fright seemed all too real. Fantasy didn't feel right, either.
Instead, little firefighters, soldiers and police officers trekked from door to door. "It was just so somber," says Chris Riddle, a trend-spotter for Cleveland-based American Greetings. "There was so much sadness."
Last year, Halloween was feistier but far from the life of the party. Some shop owners did see the beginnings of the Halloween costume serving as an escape hatch. Customers would confide to Queen of Hearts owner Annie Parrish that they had just lost their jobs, but "`I'm still getting unemployment so I can still buy a costume. I'll just spend $30 instead of $50,'" she says.
Still, the nation had just mourned the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks. While kids were moving back to let's-pretend dress - SpongeBob SquarePants, Scooby-Doo, Spider-Man - Uncle Sams and Statues of Liberty still peppered schoolyards and parties.
Last week at Party City in Plano, none of the five Go USA costumes had sold out. One, Sailor Gal, was marked down from $29.99 to $15.
But the store had no more Pirate Girls. Billy Flynn from Chicago and Neo and Trinity from the Matrix movies were gone. At $199.99, so were the fanged and three-fingered Bat Creature Reachers.
The message retailers are hearing: Let the party begin.
This echoes America's feelings, says Dr. Keith Semmel, who studies media and pop culture at Kentucky's Cumberland College. The nation's wounds from Sept. 11 are healing - hence, the return of stinging political satire on programs such as "The Daily Show." But the country is also browbeaten from events such as the war in Iraq.
Maybe, he says, people want to escape for a bit.
Costume choice could well reflect this. At least since the 1970s - the decade author Nicholas Rogers says birthed the modern, adult-oriented Halloween - costumes have been infused with pop culture.
Kids generally mimic what they see in the media, such as Frodo Baggins or Darth Vader. But what people are talking and thinking about often drapes adult partygoers, says Dr. Rogers, a history professor at Toronto's York University who wrote the book "Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night."
Think masks - O.J. Simpson, circa his murder trial, or the crop that pops up during presidential elections - or bereted and blue-dressed Monica Lewinskys. "You can really get a sense of the state," says Dr. Rogers.
If that's the case, the sense locally is that people are hungry for a diversion.
At Queen of Hearts, Shirley Gillman, 81, watches daughter Valorie Hubler sift through wigs. "It's been so hectic since Sept. 11 and everything's been happening," Gillman says. "Crazy things, those mosquitoes - the West Nile virus. People need a break. They need a change."
Her daughter, a brunette, settles on a $26.99 auburn bob. She's dressing as part of a four-person, one-coach, pink-shirted bowling team - the Gutter Gals.
Marilynn Wick, president of four Costume World stores, says getaway fever is pervasive in her dressing rooms, too. Pirates of the Caribbean outfits sail off racks, as does Britney Spears apparel.
Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, however, are too much for shoppers. Customers even avoid harem costumes - it's a reminder of the tumult in the Middle East.
"It is the mood of the country that determines how we celebrate this holiday," she says. "Halloween is a current-affairs experience."
At Party City, Plano homemaker Michelle McKool, 34, wheels a shopping cart stuffed with Halloween gadgets, such as the trick mirror that cackles. Her costume: a "scary old lady" with a wrinkly mask and a pillow to hunch her back.
"It's nice to get away for an evening and dress up and forget about things," she says. Well, most things.
Her 7-year-old son, Zachary, throws a toy stun gun into her cart: "It goes with my costume!" he says.
Zach's going as an "Army guy." He sees them all the time on TV.
© 2003, The Dallas Morning News.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.