LONDON — This Halloween, skintight full-body leotards are a sellout in Britain.
Morphsuits, the Scottish company behind the goofy, often garish bodysuits, transformed a drunken prank at a stag party into a multimillion-dollar costume phenomenon, thanks in part to the growing popularity here of celebrating All Hallows’ Eve each Oct. 31.
Much to the consternation of some, Halloween, with all its silliness, is even eclipsing Guy Fawkes Day, the 400-year-old British festival on Nov. 5.
“We are very much in the throes of Halloween mayhem at the moment,” said Gregor Lawson, one of three founders of Morphsuits, a unit of AFG Media based in Edinburgh. “Halloween seems to just get bigger and bigger and bigger, in more and more countries, and the United Kingdom is certainly catching up.”
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Halloween in Britain has eclipsed even Valentine’s Day to become the third-biggest event after Christmas and Easter in terms of consumer spending, according to Sophie Carroll, an associate analyst at Planet Retail, a consulting firm. Despite a weak economy, the holiday has been a boon for British business.
While sales of Halloween items in the United States are expected to slip by 6 percent this year to $6.9 billion, sales in Britain are forecast to grow 12 percent to $525 million from a year earlier, Carroll said.
Retailers and theme parks have jumped on the bandwagon, although some perhaps too eagerly, with some of their products backfiring.
Asda, a supermarket chain owned by Wal-Mart Stores, and the grocery giant Tesco withdrew two costumes after complaints that they made light of mental illness. One of the costumes featured a mock meat cleaver and a fake-blood-stained straitjacket.
In Lancashire, in northwestern England, Scare Kingdom Scream Park was accused of simulating rape in one of its “scary entertainment” attractions, involving visitors who were strapped to a bed with a cushion held over their faces as a man with a sex toy threatened them.
Widespread marketing efforts by retailers and the influx of American movies and television series like “The Walking Dead” have added to the enthusiasm for Halloween in the past decade. Britain’s large community of Americans has also helped popularize the holiday.
At the same time, strict rules governing fireworks and bonfires pushed revelers away from Guy Fawkes Day, which originally had a strong anti-Catholic taint. For centuries, the British observed the death of Guy Fawkes — a Catholic and a participant in the failed plot in 1605 to assassinate King James I and blow up the House of Lords — by burning his effigy, and in more modern times, by setting bonfires, eating sausages and watching fireworks displays.
“I find it rather sad that Guy Fawkes Day is edged out by Halloween,” said the Guy Fawkes historian and author James Sharpe.
“It was something unique in England, and even celebrated in the American colonies in the 18th century,” he said. “It’s a pity that it’s gone.”
But Britain’s adoption of the American holiday is perhaps not a surprise. Halloween was originally an ancient Celtic celebration in Ireland and Scotland, exported to the U.S. by immigrants. The Irish and Scots point to older Halloween traditions. The jack-o’-lantern was originally a squash, not a pumpkin; apple-bobbing began as a matchmaking ritual; and people wore costumes to ward off evil spirits.
More significantly, the British love costumes, and costume dramas are a staple of British television. To dress up and to be observed is almost a national sport, whether at horse races, rowdy rugby matches, drunken university parties or balls for young socialites.