But, Alexander points out, those characters were effectively defanged through decades of adaptation before they became dress-up fodder for preschoolers. Frankenstein’s monster morphed into bumbling Herman Munster and Dracula eventually translated into Count von Count on “Sesame Street.” No such softening has happened with characters like child-killer Freddy Krueger: They are realistically depicted in latex and fabric, then wrapped around little trick-or-treaters.
Even Alexander, who edits a horror magazine and makes low-budget horror films, says the current crop of costumes is too gory for him to consider buying for his own 5-year-old.
“My office is a nightmare come to life,” he says, “but I would never dress my child up as Freddy Krueger or Jason. ... I’m quite shocked when I see it.”
Party City’s Sprich notes that the popularity of retro horror characters like Chucky is part of a larger wave of nostalgia for the era when today’s parents were kids. The “Ghostbusters” and video game characters Mario and Luigi are also hot right now.
Today’s parents are reveling in that nostalgia, and their children are likely to feel empowered when older kids and adults are shocked or impressed by the edginess of their costumes, says Cynthia Edwards, professor of child psychology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
“Part of the thrill of Halloween for little kids is that you put on a costume and you become the thing. If you dress up as a fairy princess or a pilot, you are a fairy princess or a pilot for a couple of hours. But that’s when you get to the question, If you dress up as a really horrible thing, what is the kids’ perception of that?”
A single day spent surrounded by horror imagery probably won’t have lasting impact on kids, Edwards says. But some children will be unsettled by dressing up in realistically gory costumes or by seeing classmates dressed that way.