The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse

A Spirit Halloween store in California.
Spirit Halloween at a shopping center in Dublin, California in 2018. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
  • Since its founding in 1983, Spirit Halloween has become the go-to destination for all things Halloween.
  • Today the company has 1,400 locations in North America, primarily located in strip and traditional malls.
  • In recent years, Spirit has become the source of countless internet memes, thanks to its ubiquity in shuttered retail spaces.

Halloween is back and bigger than ever before – and Spirit Halloween is ready for a record-breaking year.

Since it’s founding in 1983, the seasonal chain store has grown ubiquitous across the US, becoming a go-to destination for all things Halloween. Drive past any suburban strip mall during September and October and there’s a high chance you’ll spot a bright orange Spirit banner hanging from the facade of one the company’s 1,400 seasonal pop-up stores.

Thanks to its penchant for inhabiting shuttered retail spaces formerly home to the like of brands like Toys R’ Us or Circuit City, in recent years Spirit has become synonymous with the Retail Apocalypse and the inspiration for countless internet memes.

“I didn’t invent temporary sales,” Spirit Halloween founder Joseph Marver told The Seattle Times in October 2000. “But I feel like I invented temporary Halloween.”

And while Spirit doesn’t disclose sales, parent company Spencer Gifts – the mall-brand known for its gag gifts ranging from lava lamps to sex toys – is estimated to bring in more than $US400 ($AU531) million annually.

After four decades of dominating the Halloween market, Spirit Halloween shows no signs of stopping this year. As the national rate of COVID-19 vaccinations continues to climb, sending more people out trick-or-treating and to parties, the Halloween industry is forecasting record sales of $US10.14 ($AU13) billion, up 20% from $US8.05 ($AU11) billion in 2020, according to the National Retail Federation.

We took a closer look at the rise of Spirit Halloween, and how it went from a small California costume shop to a bonafide holiday powerhouse.

Spirit Halloween was founded in 1983 by Joseph Marver as a pop-up store in the Castro Valley Mall in San Francisco, California.
A Spirit Halloween store.
Source: Vox

 

Before Spirit became one of the most popular destinations for Halloween costumes and decor, the company got its start as a women’s clothing store called Spirit Women’s Discount Apparel.
A woman tries on costumes at Spirit Halloween.
A woman tries on a costume at a Spirit Halloween store. Marty Caivano/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images
As sales at his apparel store started to plummet, Marver told The Seattle Times he was inspired to transition to the Halloween business after watching throngs of customers line up to visit a costume shop across the street from his store. 

“When the costume shop moved to a new location, Marver put his dresses in storage, loaded his own store with Halloween stuff and slapped a sign on the old costume shop,” Catherine Trevison of The Seattle Times wrote. “It was the best October he ever had.”The next year, he did it again with a temporary space in a nearby mall and sold $US100,000 ($AU132,860) worth of merchandise in 30 days.”

 

Today the company has 1,400 locations in North America, primarily located in strip and traditional malls.
A Spirit Halloween store in Los Angeles, California.
A Spirit Halloween store in Marina del Rey, California. Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Its main competitors are Party City and Halloween Express. Halloween pop-up stores compose an estimated 35% of the total Halloween market, according to the National Retail Federation
Marver set up the stores up to operate as seasonal retail pop-ups, which are typically open from early August through November 2.
A young girl shops for Halloween costumes with her father at Spirit Halloween.
A young girl browses Halloween costumes at a Spirit Halloween store in the Berkshire Mall in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania in 2019. Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
The company also has an online store for customers to buy costumes year-round, where it sells products for other holidays and occasions as well.

Source: Spirit Halloween

Spirit describes itself as “the premier destination for all things Halloween, offering one-stop shopping for costumes, accessories, home and outdoor decor, party goods, and our exclusive animatronics.”
A girl in a Pikachu hat holds her mother's hand at Spirit Halloween.
A young girl in a Pikachu had shops with her mother at Spirit Halloween. Jill Brady/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
The company sells costumes and decor to people of all ages, from toddlers to seniors.

Source: Spirit Halloween

The company has thousands of employees, and in 2021 hired 30,000 temporary staffers for its Halloween season.
A woman works at Spirit Halloween.
Tina Currie multitasks behind the register at Spirit Halloween. Ben McCanna/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
In addition to being an opportunity to pick up part-time work, many staffers are serious Halloween enthusiasts, according to Mental Floss. 

“I’ve never once worked with an employee that didn’t love Halloween,” Kota, a five-year employee of Spirit Halloween in Kentucky, told Mental Floss in 2020. “It’s something that all employees have in common from my experience … It’s a perfect place to meet people with the same interests.”

By 1998, Spirit Halloween had started growing rapidly and expanded to 60 stores around the country.
Masks on display at Spirit Halloween.
A wall of masks for sale at a Spirit Halloween store. Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
The 80s and 90s proved to be a boom for the Halloween business. The holiday first rose to prominence in the US after World War II, thanks in part to companies like Disney opening up licensing to use characters for costumes. The holiday experienced another uptick in popularity when the Baby Boom generation had children of their own to take trick-or-treating.  

Source: Bloomberg

According to Marver, part of what sets Spirit apart is its variety and wide assortment of merchandise.
A man and young boy try on hats and glasses at a Spirit Halloween store.
Marver told The Seattle Times that Spirit’s specificity extends to everything from masks to fake blood, and includes everything from “the fake blood that coagulates” to “the thin runny blood, the semi-thick blood and the one that just lays there like a slug.”
By the late 1990s, Spirit’s success attracted the interest of companies looking to capitalize on the Halloween superstore and so Spirit began courting acquisition proposals.
A Spirit Halloween store in New York City.
In 1999, Spencer Gifts – the mall-brand favorite known for its assortment of gag gifts and ephemera, which includes everything from lava lamps to sex toys – officially acquired Spirit Halloween.
The cast of 'The Goldbergs' outside Spencer Gifts.
The cast of ‘The Goldbergs’ shooting an episode at a Spencer Gifts store. John Fleenor/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images
“We had negotiated the year before, and they didn’t want to come up with what I was asking,” Marver told Bloomberg in 2016. “Now they said, ‘Fine, we’ll do it your way.’ Then they gave me a very nice check.”

 

 

With the help of Spencer, Spirit became known for its tongue-in-cheek pop culture costumes that tapped into the zeitgeist.
A Bernie Madoff costume at Spirit Halloween.
In 2009, one of Spirit Halloween’s most popular costumes was an incarcerated Bernie Madoff, the financier who pled guilty to operating one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history, which cost investors an estimated $US64.8 ($AU86) billion

 

The retailer continued to grow in popularity in the early 2000s, with its array of costumes and masks, including those in the likeness of popular television and film favorites like Homer Simpson.
A teenager wearing a Homer Simpson mask
A teenager tries on a Simpson mask at Spirit Halloween in 2007. David Jennings/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images
Marver starts buying costumes as early as January to ensure stores have enough inventory, basing purchases on highly anticipated shows, movies, and other big pop culture moments slated to come that year, he told The Seattle Times.  
Spirit even managed to lure notable television personalities of the era, including Kristin Cavallari of MTV’s “The Hills” and “Laguna Beach” fame.
Kristin Cavallari attends a Spirit Halloween event.
TV personality Kristin Cavallari attends The Bing It On Halloween Costume Challenge at Spirit Halloween on October 19, 2012 in New York City. Desiree Navarro/FilmMagic/Getty Images
In 2006, the company launched its philanthropic arm, Spirit of Children Halloween. The organization has raised $US77 ($AU102) million to-date to support the child life departments of hospitals around the country.
A child has her face painted at a Spirit of Children event.
A Spirit of Children and Phoenix Children’s Hospital representative face paints a patient at Phoenix Children’s Hospital on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, in Phoenix, Arizona. Rick Scuteri/AP Images for Spirit of Children
According to Spirit Halloween, the mission of  Spirit of Children “is to make hospitals less scary for kids and their families.”
Despite its success, Spirit Halloween has not been impervious to controversy. In 2016, Spirit came under fire for racial appropriation of Native Americans, and in 2021 it evoked Twitter outrage for a “Karen” costume.

Source: Vice, New York Post

Though execs start identifying pop-up locations in November, an estimated two-thirds of Spirit Halloween stores return to the same locations each year.
Source: Forbes
Due to the seasonal and temporary nature of the business, Spirit Halloween typically takes over empty big-box stores …
A Spirit Halloween store in California.
Spirit Halloween at a shopping center in Dublin, California in 2018. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
… and even recently bankrupt luxury department stores, like the now-defunct Barneys New York.
A Spirit Halloween sign outside of the old Barneys New York store in Manhattan.
A woman walks by a Spirit Halloween store at the former site of Barney’s New York in Manhattan. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
According to Spirit, it “has an excellent real estate team that works year round to scope out and lock in the best locations available,” a spokesperson told Vox in 2018. The company seeks available storefronts near large national chains like Target or Best Buy, where there is already significant foot traffic. 
As a result, Spirit Halloween has grown synonymous with the Retail Apocalypse, thanks to its penchant for popping up in abandoned retail spaces.
Spirit Halloween takes over an old Unclaimed Freight store.
A seasonal Halloween store located in the old unclaimed freight building. Ryan McFadden/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
In 2020, there were a record 12,200 store closings in the US, leaving an estimated 159 million square feet in vacant retail space as the coronavirus ravaged national businesses.
Spirit Halloween takes over an old freight building.
A Spirit Halloween located in the old unclaimed freight building. Ryan McFadden/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
Source: Forbes

 

Spirit’s ubiquity in abandoned retail spaces inspired a popular meme on social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit.
According to Know Your Meme, the meme’s origin began in December 2015 when Imgur user meatybeefy included Spirit Halloween in a viral “rundown shopping mall starter pack” image. 
Most recently, the meme has been used to satirize everything from the 2018 government shutdown…

… to the recent Facebook outage.

But regardless of the Twitter jokes, Americans still can’t get enough Spirit Halloween.
A young child wears a mermaid costume at Spirit Halloween.
A young girl sings and dances while modeling her new Ariel costume at Spirit Halloween in South Portland. Jill Brady/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images