Halloween Spending: The Price of Fright

PHOTO: Having a hauntingly good time Oct. 31 can cost a pretty penny.
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The spookiest time of year is back. The end of October brings the opportunity to spend lots of money on a few hours of frightful frolicking.

Bankrate set out to gauge the price of fright by tracking the cost of a basket of holiday items. The items include decorations, candy, pumpkins and kids' costumes. The index was assembled by pricing each item across six retailers. The prices from six vendors were averaged to find the typical cost.

Having a hauntingly good time Oct. 31 can cost a pretty penny, but beware: Economics can barge in when you least expect it.

First, some history

The jack-o'-lantern is, arguably, the defining symbol of the season. But pumpkins weren't always associated with the end of October. In Ireland, where the holiday was thought to have originated, carved turnips were the vegetable of choice.

"Pumpkins as jack o' lanterns have been around for probably 120 years at this point," says Lisa Morton, author of "Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween."

Luckily, pumpkins are fairly easy to come by. The average carving pumpkin costs about $5; the weighted average price in September was $4.73, according to the USDA's National Fruit and Vegetable Report.

The custom of going door to door demanding treats, nicely of course, has been around for an even shorter period.

"It was starting to catch on in the late '30s, and then World War II happened, and there was sugar rationing and so on. So it wasn't until after the war that it really started catching on," Morton says.

There's no shortage of sweets these days, but it can still cost a lot to supply the neighborhood with treats. According to Bankrate's calculations, about 5 pounds of candy comes with an average price of $22. For our measurement, we looked at two 40 ounce bags containing 130 miniature candy bars.

The price of candy has actually decreased, according to the Department of Labor. "What you're seeing recently is the price of candy has fallen when you adjust seasonally," says Chris Christopher, director of global and U.S. consumer markets for IHS Global Insight. "Sugar prices in the U.S. are protected. They try to keep sugar prices high, but they have been falling," he says.

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Sugar has a major influence on the price of candy, but there are other factors that determine price as well, including shipping and production costs.

"Fuel goes into it (as well as the) the utility bills of the major candy manufacturers," Christopher says.

Costly costumes

Like trick-or-treating, Halloween costumes were a 20th century invention born out of necessity.

"For about 30 years, Halloween was taken over by pranksters. By the '30s, pranks were causing cities millions of dollars of damage. They considered banning Halloween in many cities, but instead parents got together and came up with party ideas for kids, and a lot of them involved dressing up and costuming," Morton says.

"There were things called house-to-house parties. Because it was the Great Depression and everyone was so poor, each house would fund a different part of the party, and that's one of the things that could have led to trick or treating as well," she says.

Bankrate's Halloween research found that the price of a kids costume today is an average of $29.60, sans accessories. Halloween costumes don't tend to appreciate in cost with inflation, according to Mark Bietz, vice president of marketing at HalloweenCostumes.com.

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Prices go up "as manufacturing prices increase along with competition. Typically, this isn't being passed along to the consumer. Retailers are just taking slimmer margins," he says. To be sure, some of the pricier costumes may require buying parts separately, so they don't seem to be too expensive.

"Some big-box retailers will remove specific parts of a costume in order to bring down the price point, such as a boot top, for instance," says Bietz. "Also, costumes that are made from a specific license will be higher due to the costs associated with the licensor."

If you want to be Batman for Halloween, it will cost a lot more than simply going as a man dressed as a bat.

Halloween: Not just for kids

Halloween is far from just a kiddie holiday. From fake coffins to eerie, ancient-looking drapes and candelabras, revelers can redecorate their entire house in Halloween themes. Bankrate investigated the cost of doing a little seasonal embellishment around the house and found that the costs of some basic Halloween decor can reach $97.61. That'll get you a posable skeleton, a light-up tombstone and a Halloween lantern.

Read More: 16 easy, do it yourself Halloween costumes

Where adults can really spend some dough is on their own costumes. Adult costumes are a rapidly expanding sector in the Halloween industry, according to Bietz.

In fact, adults buying costumes is one of the major drivers in the increase in Halloween spending over the past 11 years, according to Kathy Grannis, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. That's how long the retail trade group has been conducting a survey of Halloween spending.

"Adults are realizing that they can participate and are getting into it by dressing up and going to parties," Grannis says.

The dreadfully dismal science

Tastes in Halloween costumes vary from predictable to ingenious. Where you fall in the Halloween originality spectrum could be correlated to how you feel about uncertainty in other venues like, say, your career or investing. Economics strike again.

In 2007, Yale economics professor Dean Karlan began doing experiments on trick-or-treaters. Recreating an experiment called the Ellsberg paradox, he presented the costumed treat-seekers with two bowls containing a number of red and blue dice. One bowl was covered, blocking the viewer from gauging the probability of choosing a certain colored die. The other bowl, also filled with blue and red dice, was uncovered.

In the experiment, the child chose the bowl and bet on a color. Eyes covered, the researcher pulled one of the dice from the bowl. If it matched the color they picked, the child won a large candy. Karlan found that children wearing the most common costumes were least likely to choose the covered bowl with ambiguous odds of success.

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"Objectively, they are the same, but subjectively, people are more uncomfortable choosing the unknown situation. It turns out those were the same children that were more likely to wear the unoriginal costume," Karlan says.

Discomfort with uncertain odds of success could lead to middle-of-the-road costume choices. "My neighbor went as a toilet one year, and her friend went as a plunger -- a very creative and fun idea. That's a costume that you're going to wear and aren't sure about the reaction you're going to get," Karlan says. "You go out as Spiderman, and everyone will know you and go, 'Hey, Spidey!' No one will make fun of you, but you know that you won't really stand out, either."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

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