"Michael Jackson is going to be big this year," says Heather Golin, director of special projects at Spencer Gifts, which operates the Spirit Halloween chain, with nearly 800 Halloween superstores. Spencer Gifts churned out 20 Jackson-related costumes and accessories late this summer after the pop icon's death -- including wigs, his iconic "Thriller" outfit, and a host of sequined gloves.
National retailers, who reported a slight increase in sales figures in September for the first time in a year, hope to be buoyed by Halloween and pre-holiday sales this month. Bernie Madoff is among this Halloween's most infamous characters. Masks for the billionaire Ponzi-scheme artist are "flying off the shelves" and Rubie's Costume Company has already shipped 15,000 to stores nationwide.
Entering a Spirit Halloween store near Miami -- the stores open about a month before Halloween and close a day after it -- one is accosted by robotic zombies ($199.99) crawling on the floor, cackling life-sized animated witches, and a convincing mock-up of Michael Myers, of "Halloween" slasher-pic fame.
But that's kids' stuff. "Sexy costumes are always our biggest seller," says Steve Greene, south Florida district manger of Spirit Halloween.
Greene points to a corner of the gym-sized store where a small army of scantily-clad women leer at us from their shrink-wrapped packages. There's sexy Robin, meant to accompany her manly Batman; the Flash with red, thigh-high boots; and Catwoman. Few of the costumes in this collection sell for under $50.
"This is the time of year where people get to do whatever they want to do. They'll spend the money because it's like a fantasy for them," said Greene. He says the sexy outfits are selling especially well because Halloween this year falls on a Saturday.
Retro is also popular. "Sesame Street" costumes, including Bert, Ernie, and the Cookie Monster, are expected to sell well, as are Mario and Luigi of Nintendo fame.
Politicians are apparently doing poorly, said Greene. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Al Gore and John McCain were all relegated to an obscure corner of the store. They all sold for $17 or less. Sarah Palin, at $29.99, is expected to outsell them all, Greene said.
Alongside Palin, a top political costume choice is no other than conservative talk show host Glenn Beck. His new book, "Arguing With Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government" is among this month's best sellers. Whether "you love him or hate him," imitating the controversial political wonk would likely liven up any Halloween party.
Recession Halloween: Michael Jackson and Sarah Palin
Across the plastic fountain bubbling with fake fog, the cackling witches and bleeding zombies, at the PG rated part of the store, Greene expects Transformers costumes to go big. "Everyone wants to be Bumblebee -- that or Optimus Prime," he said. Pirates are still popular, as are G.I. Joe characters and Ninjas.
$30 Costumes: Pricey in a Recession
For some, the prospect of Halloween spending is downright frightful. Debbie Bohen, 40, said she lost her job as a printer in July, "and my husband finally landed a job after a year-and-a-half without work, so we've been going through a hard time."
She had taken her 13-year-old-son to the store but was able to buy only part of his Halloween costume. Poking a thumb in her son's direction she said, "he's sacrificed so many other things in the past two months, I guess 20 bucks is the most I can part with right now."
Her son was planning to be an evil clown. So they bought the body suit from a prisoner costume, recycled a mask he wore last year, and spent $2.99 on a vial of fake blood.
Bohen plans on putting together her own Daisy Duke costume: a flannel shirt, high shorts, and high boots, though she jokes, "I won't look quite as skinny."
Outside, Alyson Rabinovitz, 20, complained, "There's too much focus on sexy. What happened to the original message of Halloween, which was to scare people?" She plans to go as a witch. An oldie but goodie.