How Spirit Halloween Went from Malls to Movies

Since 1983, the pop-up store Spirit Halloween has been a holiday mainstay, but how did it become a spine-tingling sensation?

Spirit Halloween location in Sacramento, CA (Shutterstock)

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Some things are simply synonymous with Halloween: jack-o’-lanterns, costumes, and kids taking handfuls of candy from bowls marked “one piece only,” to name a few.

Since 1983, the pop-up store Spirit Halloween has been a mainstay, especially since the 2010s. Today, it is next to impossible to drive anywhere in America without seeing Spirit’s looming Grim Reaper mascot against their signature orange and gold background. There are over 1,400 Spirit Halloweens across the U.S. It has become so popular that a Spirit Halloween movie debuted on September 30.

How did Spirit Halloween get its spine-tingling start and go on to become the cultural sensation it is today?

Much like some of its patron holiday’s undead mainstays, Spirit Halloween was created from something else’s remains — a women’s clothing store in San Francisco’s Castro Valley Mall named Spirit Women’s Discount Apparel. In October of 1983, the store’s owner, Joseph Marver, after noticing that sales at his store were beginning to plummet, looked outside and saw dozens of customers lining up across the street to enter a costume shop.

Marver immediately realized that Halloween was where the public’s interest lay. He waited until the costume store moved to a new location and then filled his shop with all of the Halloween merchandise he could afford, including costumes, statues, posters, and other holiday commodities. He renamed his store “Spirit Halloween,” and the holiday staple was born.

It turned out Marver’s instincts were spot on; he had his most profitable October ever. After Halloween, he returned the clothing store to its original state, until October of 1984 rolled around. Hoping to capitalize even further on the holiday craze, Marver used the previous year’s profits to rent a storefront for Spirit Halloween in a San Francisco mall. The second year proved the pop-up’s popularity when it earned more than $100,000 in just one month, making it Marver’s best October profit at that point.

From there, Marver decided to expand. He opened new Spirit Halloweens across California and changed the pop-up model so that the stores were open longer, from the start of August until the end of Halloween.

Spirit Halloween remained a prominent and profitable enterprise, but one that grew in small increments until 1999, when the massive conglomerate Spencer Gifts took notice of Spirit’s success and purchased the company. Together, they formed Spencer Spirit Holdings Incorporated. Marver stayed on, serving as CEO for the Spirit Halloween branch of the company. By the turn of the century, there were 60 Spirit Halloweens across the United States.

Although Spirit Halloween stores remained temporary, Marver expanded the company to year-round Halloween preparation. Beginning in January of each year, the chain would order thousands of costumes, animatronics, and Halloween props. In 2000, Marver told the Seattle Times that what set Spirit apart from other holiday retailers was the diversity and specificity of its products, citing that the stores carried at least four types of fake blood. That number has since increased to twelve.

Spirit’s profits skyrocketed even further in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when new licensing agreements with mega-corporations like Disney allowed all Spirit locations to sell costumes with the likenesses of popular characters. Today, these characters make up some of the best-selling costumes for children in the U.S. (including Spider-Man, Harley Quinn, and Stranger Things characters in the top ten).

With the combination of expanded costume options, growing varieties of props and decorations, and the increasing availability of local locations, Spirit Halloween has grown by approximately 60 stores every year since 2000, according to Business Insider. Today, there are 1,450 stores between the U.S. and Canada, and it’s estimated that the chain will sell $10.6 billion of spooky products this year.

Today, Spirit Halloween no longer exists solely in pop-up stores, or even just in the retail business. In 2006, the company founded Spirit of Children, a branch that raises money for art, music, aquatic, and pet therapy programs at children’s hospitals. Yet even through its charitable arm, Spirit still remained true to its roots. Spirit of Children also provides hospitalized children with costumes, candy, and Halloween parties every October. To date, the philanthropic branch has raised over $93 million.

Spirit Halloween’s brand has also experienced some stumbles in recent years. In 2016, government agency Health Canada recalled seven Spirit Halloween products, saying they were fire safety risks and choking hazards. Spirit claimed to have removed all of the products, but Health Canada reported that the products had not been properly taken out of circulation in all stores. Meanwhile, the chain has repeatedly come under fire for carrying costumes alleged to be racist, particularly costumes of indigenous people, according to Vice.

Despite these controversies, Spirit Halloween is experiencing some of its largest profits ever, thanks in part to another foray that Spirit has taken into uncharted territory: a movie.

Spirit Halloween: The Movie was released in select theaters on September 30, and debuted on-demand on October 11. The film centers on a group of children who are trapped in a Spirit Halloween with an evil spirit who possesses several of the store’s more famous animatronics, and stars Christopher Lloyd and Rachael Leigh Cook. While the film has received largely negative reviews, it serves to demonstrate the far-reaching hold that the retail chain has on Halloween celebrations.

Spirit Halloween remains a cultural giant. In 2022, it’s the largest Halloween retailer in the world. Thirty-five percent of America’s Halloween expenditures are paid to Spirit Halloween. The chain has a Flagship Festival every year when the first location opens for the season. More than 35,000 people go to Spirit Halloweens every day that they are open. It is safe to say that no store dominates a holiday market so completely.

Today, it’s hard to believe that there was a time where Spirit Halloween’s Grim Reaper didn’t loom over every strip mall in the United States. The specter’s omnipresence wouldn’t be possible without a not-so-scary apparel story in Southern California.

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