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The Haunting (and Civically Responsible) Beauty of Halloween Stores

Spirit Halloween Stores are masters at peddling scares, but their real beauty comes from reanimating the dead

Ryan Bradford
Oct 29, 2018 · 8 min read
All photos by author.

A robotic, life-size Michael Myers stands near the entrance of National City’s Spirit Halloween, awkwardly rotating its torso and stabbing air. The theme song from Halloween bleeds out from some hidden speaker — tinny and forever repeating. Children keep running up and activating Michael’s motion, immune to the maddening repetition of it. I have to walk away, but it’s impossible to go anywhere in the place without hearing John Carpenter’s iconic score. After a while, it really does make my skin crawl.

I’m not at this Spirit Halloween Store to purchase spooky decor, or Skeleboner, what I can only assume is this year’s hottest item: a skeleton costume with an inflatable dick.

Rather, I’m looking for evidence.

Soon I find what I’m looking for: graphics of Hollywood Video logos — wrapped with flowing film strips — are printed onto the carpet. I try to think back to when Hollywood Video was still a company. I have a vague memory of being 20 years old and opening an account at a Hollywood Video just so I could rent Maniac Cop. When I gawked at the price of the rental — maybe $6 — the store clerk was quick to remind me that Hollywood Video was a “cinema library,” which I guess was their way of distinguishing themselves from Blockbuster Video.

That was 2004, and although that was the last time I stepped into a Hollywood Video, the chain officially shuttered in 2010.

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Which means this National City Spirit Halloween Store occupies a building that has been… [Scooby Doo realization voice] a-a-a-abandoned for at least eight years!

I take a couple photos of the carpet, careful not to touch it. The brown stains could be water or blood. It feels a little like I’m taking pics of a dead body at a crime scene. The Halloween song trickles over the sinister sounds of gleeful children and by now my unease is real. It’s not the song, nor the children, nor the jerky robot movements affecting me per se, but the culmination of experiencing it all at once in such a damned place — much like playing with a Ouija board in a cemetery.

It’s a thrilling feeling, that unease. Ideal for the Halloween season. Spirit Halloween Stores are masters at peddling scares, but their real (and probably inadvertent) beauty comes from reanimating the dead, exorcising demons, and creating real goddamn haunts. Because what else do you call a transitory inhabitation apart from a haunting?

Horror nerds are always quick to point out the difference between a ghost and a poltergeist. Ghosts inhabit, they haunt, but they do not disrupt. Poltergeists, on the other hand, break stuff. They cause harm. They fuck shit up. And when a brain is wired toward horror, it’s easy to see the allegories in society, especially when it comes to land use.

In San Diego — as in in most major cities — gentrification creeps through the city like an oozing poltergeist. This malevolent force is not grasping for Carol Ann, but upending neighborhoods, changing their identities, and pricing out the residents. San Diego is already the fifth most expensive city to buy a home and increasing at a rate that outpaces the nation. Just few exits north of National City Spirit Halloween, the neighborhood of Barrio Logan has felt the effects of rapid gentrification, which came to a head last year when a wealthy, white savior-type woman attempted to open a high-end “modern fruteria” in the historically Chicano neighborhood. Her tone-deaf idea was ridiculed so mercilessly that she withdrew her plans, but the incident laid bare a community’s frustration over gentrification ravaging their neighborhood.

Fucking poltergeists, man. Always trying to sell us some expensive-ass fruit.

But Spirit Halloween Stores are a different breed of ghost. Although they share some characteristics with gentrifying poltergeists, Spirits don’t really change the structure or identity of a neighborhood. Even if they are guilty of selling overpriced frivolity to a community that doesn’t need it (those Skeleboner costumes run a whopping $40, by the way), Spirits are not ushering in fundamental change in a community, or outpricing the residents. And because they tend to occupy defunct business spaces, they’re arguably responsible for revitalization (or reactivation, at least) without gentrification.

It may be a leap to believe that Spirit Halloween Stores are ideal models for responsible land use, but blind faith has historically been been applied to less rational notions. Like ghosts, for instance.

Around the end of August every year, Spencer’s Gifts LLC (America’s premier retailer of fart-making sound machines and the unsexiest sex toys) opens more than 1,300 Spirit Halloween stores across the nation, ostensibly making it the largest seller of spooky shit in the U.S. These stores are essentially pop-ups, inhabiting whatever empty spaces they can sink their claws into for three months out of the year, and then disappearing back into the fog-juice-scented ether from which they came.

There are 14 Spirit locations in San Diego and the surrounding suburbs. Many of them occupy strip malls, grocery stores, Best Buys, and Panda Expresses — areas that don’t really have an identity to begin with, much less one that is at risk for becoming gentrified.

“[Spirit Halloween] targets locations that are typically auto-oriented, [which provide] ease of access and lots of parking,” says Joe LaCava, a civil engineer and land use consultant. “But perhaps in some urban locations… they may be exactly what is needed — if only temporary.”

This year, a Spirit opened in Rolando, one of the fastest gentrifying areas in San Diego. The building that it occupies was recently a discount clothing and accessory store called Super Saldos, whose namesake still resides on the tile at the entrance. A menacing clown decal has been placed in front of wall signage that reads “Handbags,” and the effect is fucking uncanny, like the clown is luring me in with the promise of a cheap purse.

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The transition between Super Saldos and Spirit seemed so quick that rigor mortis hadn’t even set in. It’s attractive to think that this was a strategic step toward curtailing the next encroaching hipster coffee shop, boutique or fruteria in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, but the reality is that landlords most likely view Spirit Halloween Stores as quick sources of income and/or temporary activations to attract permanent tenants.

“[Spirit Halloweens] are exactly the kind of temporary activations many business districts desperately need to fill a vacant lot or an empty storefront,” LaCava says. “Many landlords don’t like to deal with temporary leases — always hoping that long-term tenant is about to show up.”

When I ask what, if any, consideration goes into Spirit’s decisions that determine storefront locations, Marissa Uzzolino, Spencer’s public relations contact, replies:

“Because we are a privately held company, I am not at liberty to discuss Spirit business; however, I can tell you that being a seasonal store has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, as the economy continues to improve, retailers are beginning to expand their portfolios and vacant spaces are beginning to backfill. We do face challenges securing the best locations; however, Spirit Halloween has an excellent real estate team that works year round to scope out and lock in the best locations available.”

Uzzolino doesn’t respond to requests to talk with a member of Spirit’s real estate team, but I can read between the lines of her response: an improving economy makes it increasingly difficult for Spirit Halloweens to exist. I guess it makes sense — less death means fewer ghosts.

There are large white letters behind makeshift walls in La Mesa’s Spirit Halloween. Even though I can only see the top of the lettering, it’s easy to make out what they say: “Frozen” and “Bakery.” Above the changing rooms, it reads “save on meat” — another revenant from the building’s former life, but still looks pervy above the area where people try on sexy costumes of nuns, boxers, and Freddy Krueger.

This former grocery store has been closed since 2014, but it’s provided a generous corpse for Spirit Halloween to inhabit. In the far corner, they’ve set up a small spookhouse for customers to walk through. I take a step in and a scream blasts out of a hidden speaker, activated by my motion. It’s so loud that I jump out of my skin. I back the fuck out of the spookhouse as fast as I can. With my heart still pounding, I cross in front of a doghouse and a beast with glowing red eyes jumps out. It’s another motion-activated toy, but I still cower and then laugh. Had anybody ever had this much fun in here when it was a grocery store?

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The internet is abound with people commenting on the the strangeness of seeing former businesses reanimated as Spirit Halloween stores (can it get any more surreal than a Halloween shop in a former Babies ‘R Us?). Strange? Yes, but whatever unease comes from seeing a large baby pics among the horror is way less offensive than white people selling overpriced fruit to a Chicano community.

Perhaps the revitalization qualities of Spirit Halloween Stores are minimal. There’s a good chance that I’m putting too much altruistic idealism in these slingers of spooktacular shit, but certainly there’s something we can learn from their non-impact on a community. Maybe we can even apply Spirit’s model to future businesses as an effort to keep gentrification in check. Maybe all stores should just be Halloween stores?

After Halloween, the Spirits will disappear, leaving their buildings open for any type of ghosts to possess. Given the rate of gentrification and rapidly increasing real estate prices in San Diego, I’d wager that it’ll be something disruptive. Something like a poltergeist.

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