The Haunted Credit Card

An ode to store-bought Halloween costumes.

“Mama, I love my Halloween costume,” my son Eli sighed to me this week as I kissed him good night. Could any childish words be sweeter, and, in my case, more wholly unexpected?

I am the least crafty person I know. I don’t sew, I don’t glue, and I have dreaded every diorama to ever come my way. None of this precludes making a good Halloween costume. But lack of imagination does, and when it comes to dressing up, mine never fails to fail me. So this year, I cut corners, I sold out, I caved in—pick your cliche. I shopped for costumes online with my kids gleefully at my side. I know, this is unworthy on more than one level: commercialized, expensive, an abandonment of upright and wholesome values, an accretion of more useless plastic objects, which I normally can’t abide. But you know what? My kids and I are looking forward to trick or treating next week without a shred of anxiety.

My husband, Paul, was not happy with my executive Halloween decision. He remembers joyfully plowing through his family closets, wrapping himself in scarves and hats, and happily emerging as a “Russian Cossack.” This easygoing, no-fuss approach to Halloween is one he thinks we should be able to create. He’s right. But that was the ‘70s. And even then, my memories of Halloween consist of green felt Peter Pan hats and capes that fell apart and, most years, lots of wrong guesses from parents and friends about who I was trying to be. (Robin Hood, after Prince John’s men tear his clothes to pieces? The Jolly Green Giant? A gawky elf?) So I thwarted Paul and typed Harry Potter Halloween Costume into Google.

Some crap came up, and so did some pricey outfits with all kinds of trimmings. But then my sons and I found a basic Gryffindor robe on sale for $25.95. Dressing up as Harry Potter, of course, is only a smidgen more interesting than going as Spider-Man (1.5 million last year) or a princess (4 million). But Eli and his younger brother, Simon, had a concept: Eli would be Harry and Simon would be Ron Weasley. “So then we’re on the same side,” Simon said, and Eli nodded. Sibling bonhomie—that makes up for low creativity points, doesn’t it?

In this cheery, brothers-as-best-friends moment, I got a little carried away and started to click around for accessories. Paul protested. We had a pair of Harry Potter glasses somewhere, left over from a birthday party, didn’t we? He managed to find them, minus one arm, and said we could repair them. But I was caught up in my vision, and put a new pair of glasses into the shopping cart. We could dye Simon’s hair red, we decided, or draw on his head with a red marker. “And they can make their own wands,” Paul finished. When the kids looked a little glum, he pointed out that they’ve played for months with the lightsabers they made out of rolled up newspapers (with the help of a clever babysitter). They went off to bed with the promise of posterboard and marker supplies.

But later, I went back to the Web site I’d found and discovered wands that lit up and made noises when you swipe them through the air. A bargain, I thought, at $10 each. I know, I know, this is why Halloween costume sales are expected to reach $1.82 billion this year, an increase from $1.5 billion just five years ago, according to the National Retail Foundation. There are many better ways to spend money, not to mention that my indulgence would only make it that much harder for the parents who can’t shell out $35 per costume. And yet, those wands—wouldn’t they get lots of use as toys after the holiday? More saliently, if I’m honest, wouldn’t the kids be deliciously, sinfully thrilled when we pulled them out of the box?

Commentary about Halloween costumes tends to veer in one of two directions. There are the articles that promise that kids love homemade costumes best and try to goad you into making one with helpful hints about robot construction and Gypsy inspiration. “The key to a good costume was that Mom made it,” one writer reminisces about the pumpkins and Power Rangers she sewed. This genre has found expression in a storybook, Gus and Grandpa and the Halloween Costume, in which Gus’ parents refuse to buy him a store-bought costume, and Grandpa saves him by finding a costume that Grandma made for his father. The other kind of article mourns the disappearance of the lovingly pieced-together costume era and claims that, like Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties, store-bought superheroes are wrecking the real thing because kids inexplicably prefer them.

I don’t know about that. At the annual Halloween parade at Eli’s school, the costumes that merit finger-pointing and longing gazes are the ones that kids and parents come up with themselves. Harry Potter and Ron Weasley are fine; salt and pepper shakers made from boxes and tinfoil are truly cool. Even I had a superior Halloween moment once, when I got to be one of the five senses with my far more imaginative college roommates. But now that I’m left to my own boring devices, I’m grateful that buying off the rack no longer means settling for a cheap mask with a pinching elastic band and a plastic smock with a picture of what you’re supposed to be. In contrast to my childhood memories, my kids and I can marvel at our brilliant, crafty friends without feeling humiliated. They get to be ingenious, and we get to be passable. Some other day, it’ll be my turn to pull off homemade virtue—by baking birthday cupcakes from scratch, say. And if our friends and I are really lucky, our parental lapses will make us less likely to judge each other when we happen to be the one doing it right.

Paul bought the poster board he’d promised for the wands. There it sat on our dining room table, and then the Harry-Ron costume box arrived. The kids tore it open, and they loved their wands. Paul was ready to strangle me, but he couldn’t, because we were trying to ban the killing curse and teach Simon to say lumos and leviosa instead. I pointed out that at least these useless plastic objects appear to have staying power—for as long as we have AA batteries. The robes, meanwhile, are soft and cozy, and Eli and Simon announced that they will double as bathrobes. So now I really feel smug: $60 bought me Halloween peace of mind, and a winter of warm nights. Selling out and feeling good.