NEW YORK (AP) As a child, Tom McGannon always had the most decorated house on the block during the Halloween season. At 36, he still does, but the decorations are more high-tech.
McGannon's bag of tricks now include smoking graveyard scenes with strobe lighting. He's also thinking about buying a hologram machine that projects scary images. And where will McGannon be on Halloween night?
''On the roof, pulling thick fishing lines that move the mannequins,'' such as spiders and skeletons, the Royal Oak, Mich., resident said.
Plenty of people are joining McGannon in the fun of Halloween decorating inside and outside the home, making it the second-largest decorating holiday after the Christmas and Hanukkah season. The trend has been a boon to small businesses and big discounters, who have expanded their Halloween merchandise way beyond ceramic pumpkins and stuffed scarecrows.
Now, they're selling high-tech wizardry such as voice-activated skeletons, smog machines and downright gory bleeding goblins.
''With Halloween, you can get a little funky,'' said Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. ''We keep adding more to meet the needs of our customers.''
Popular items at Wal-Mart include six-foot-tall inflatable purple spiders and eight-feet-tall inflatable jack-o-lanterns. The discounter also has skeletons and monsters that sing and dance to such popular tunes as ''Born to Be Wild,'' ''Evil Ways'' and ''Super Freak.''
It gets grosser at Party City Corp., a 500-store chain based in Rockaway, N.J., whose Halloween merchandise includes a fake head with a wandering eyeball that follows people as they pass by.
With Halloween decorating now a feature at mass marketers, these creepy accessories have come down in price over the past few years, with many costing under $60. But for those who aren't scared about spending, iParty Inc., a 40-store chain based in Dedham, Mass., has a shivering butler mannequin that retails for $399, and Chicago-based Architectural Artifacts rents or sells gothic decor that runs into the thousands of dollars.
Halloween has been popular with adults and children for decades, but the decorating business particularly the higher end has burgeoned in the past few years. Architectural Artifacts said its clients had been limited to the Hollywood community, but now the company is being sought after by consumers for their own personal use.
''Three years ago, the Halloween business was nonexistent,'' said Stuart Grannen, the company's president.
According to Unity Marketing, a New York-based marketing consulting firm, consumers are estimated to spend $1.54 billion on Halloween decorations this year, accounting for about 10 percent of the projected $14.72 billion overall seasonal decor business. That's up 5.5 percent from 2003.
Halloween decorating gives people a lift and also helps them connect with one another, a comforting trend during uncertain times, marketing experts say.
''This is all being driven by consumers,'' said Pam Danziger, Unity Marketing's president. ''It's all about turning outward, and making yourselves known to your neighbors.''
Not to mention that the trend has spurred some healthy rivalry in neighborhoods, where homeowners compete for the biggest and most outrageous displays. McGannon said he's confident that he can beat his neighbors this year.
Others, like Shannon Darby of Spring, Texas, realize that their Halloween decorations aren't up to snuff with what's out there in their area, and are already thinking about next year.
''I will definitely be adding more,'' she said.
Consumers are spending more on Halloween decorating compared to other holidays like Valentine's Day and Easter because it can be celebrated by people of any age, retailers said. And given Halloween's ghoulish nature, consumers can stretch their imagination.
''It's a lot more fun,'' said Bonnie Russell, of Del Mar, Calif. ''Decorating for Thanksgiving is a lot harder. Halloween also zaps us into more innocent times when you were younger. We need some distractions.''
By comparison, consumers are expected to spend $7.97 billion for Christmas and Hanukkah decorations, about 54 percent of the overall market. That's an increase of 5 percent from a year ago. For Thanksgiving, spending should reach $1.01 billion this year, a 5 percent gain from 2003.
Halloween's ever-growing popularity has made even the most complex merchandise easy to find. Homeowner McGannon said that in the past he had to use his business connections to get his hands on high-tech special-effect items, but now he can just go to his local Kmart to buy the items.
And consumers are also becoming more creative themselves, blending high-tech with low-tech items. In McGannon's high-tech haunted backyard, he has gravestones made out of the most mundane of materials home insulation.
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