There’s something in the air besides the crisp bite of autumn. The U.S. is witnessing, on the one hand, a “Great Resignation,” with fed-up employees walking off the job by the millions. Simultaneously, we’re seeing a wave of strikes and labor organization unlike any in recent memory. Short-staffed companies have been forced to raise wages in a tight market. “Essential” workers, after being exploited for most of the pandemic, are flipping the script on their CEOs.
Also, it’s October. Which means that a vacant retail property near you has likely been taken over by Spirit Halloween, a Spencer Gifts-owned seasonal store selling costumes, decorations and accessories. Now almost 40 years old, the chain boasts more than 1,400 locations across North America. The franchises’ ubiquity and sudden annual appearance make for delightful memes.
The long-term success of Spirit Halloween is no accident — the brand has a killer business model. Because the stores can adapt to any space, large or small, and set up virtually overnight, they’re ideal tenants for abandoned lots that would otherwise sit empty and generate no revenue for the owners. They take advantage of suburban overdevelopment, the strip malls that have outlived their original value to the community as restaurants and department stores are shuttered or go bankrupt. This “hermit crab” strategy contributes to a running joke: The second an establishment closes, it’s taken over by a new Spirit Halloween. Even Facebook headquarters weren’t safe when the social network went offline for a few hours.
But this year’s labor disputes, and the #Striketober phenomenon, have added a fascinating wrinkle to Spirit Halloween’s legacy. The store’s sign can be wielded by workers as an implicit threat to upper management: If we’re not satisfied, we’ll shut this place down, and it’ll be converted into a seasonal costume retailer before you know what hit you. In recent negotiations, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees narrowly averted a planned nationwide strike that would have brought film and TV production to a screeching halt. As their deadline for a deal approached, IATSE members — who obviously have a knack for props — turned part of the iconic Warner Bros. lot into a Spirit Halloween with the company’s familiar banner image.
The message was unmistakable: Fuck around and find out.
It’s a thrilling tactic that instantly cuts to the heart of capitalist dread. Symbolizing the failure and disappearance of so many once-profitable enterprises, the Spirit Halloween becomes, in classic horror fashion, a memento mori for the fat cats with grossly inflated salaries: Remember that you, too, must die. For a union to secure higher pay, enhanced benefits and livable hours, it cannot simply argue that the laborers deserve these; it had to convey that the bosses need them in order to survive. What better way to do that then scare them with the specter of a disastrous future? Nobody is safe, and wherever something collapses, Spirit Halloween is there to claim the turf.
This foreboding, Grim Reaper-ish quality would be somewhat undercut if Spirit Halloween were itself a shitty employer. Thankfully, at least to go by Glassdoor reviews, people enjoy working there. While jobs start at only $11.89 an hour, it’s said to be a fun and relaxed working environment, and the staff are generally united in their love of Halloween. They also have some latitude to run each location as they see fit — here’s a Twitter thread from a worker listing the racist products that “employees have collectively decided they will not sell at my store,” including Native American garb, Afro wigs, bamboo hats and “gypsy” dresses. (While they haven’t been directly empowered to do this, it appears unlikely that anyone will stop them.) If Spirit Halloween is guilty of anything, it’s stocking these items in the first place, and occasionally trying to muscle out local, smaller, year-round costume shops. Nature of the beast, I guess.
Can the Spirit Halloween sign remain a warning to the stingy and wealthy executive class after the holiday has passed? Sure. Although the stores only appear in August, there’s always another Halloween on the way, and the company spends most of each year scouting for real estate. It never sleeps, and it can reemerge anywhere to feed on the corpse of formerly thriving industry. Here’s hoping that workers keep the image in the public eye, so no one forgets what the endgame of predatory economics looks like: A country where all the hubs of commerce are empty except for a few months each fall, when pop-ups deliver some cheap distraction.