Why Do People Keep Filming Their Children Terrorizing Halloween Stores, and Why Do I Keep Watching?

Stills from YouTube videos of kids at Halloween stores, with YouTube "play" logo overlaying images.
Photo illustration by Slate. Stills by YouTube.

I didn’t buy a new costume this year, so I’m not sure why I spent the better part of a day browsing what Halloween stores are hawking this holiday season. Maybe it was because I could do it on YouTube, where, for the past few Octobers, the long-awaited annual visit to a Halloween store has become a minigenre of its own.

If you’re in need of a bizarre Halloween-themed rabbit hole to occupy your day, look no further. What happens in these videos is pretty straightforward: Some people—usually a family of adults and kids, but sometimes an adult couple, and occasionally just a guy on his own—visit one of those pop-up Halloween stores or a Party City, and they march around the place, looking at decorations, trying on masks, and marveling at all the Fortnite costumes on the market this year. (Seriously, so much Fortnite stuff, and can someone explain how this one game can involve knights, skeletons, and a Cuddle Team?) If you’ve ever been to a pop-up Halloween store, the videos will feel pretty familiar. Which is what makes their view counts so puzzling: Why did 16 million people care to watch the below footage of a little girl running around a Spirit Halloween giggling, crying, and making scary faces as carnival music plays?

I have a guess. A visit to the Halloween store is probably old hat for most of us, but a sizable chunk of the YouTube audience is made up of kids, people who don’t yet think of store-bought costumes as tacky and the concept of a Halloween emporium as oddly sad. Who is Halloween really for, after all? Not adults who want an excuse to go out in costume—kids! And if one Slate staffer’s 2-year-old is any indication, watching fellow kids go buck wild in Halloween stores across America is just what YouTube-surfing tots crave. Kids don’t care if the videos they’re watching are from last year, like the one above. All they want to do is mimic the feeling of being surrounded by aisles and aisles of costumes and party gear, much of which features their favorite characters from other videos. Halloween store videos have something in common with toy unboxing videos, a hugely lucrative sector of the YouTube economy. What is a Halloween store if not a toy store that hews to a very specific theme? They may not sell bicycles, Barbies, or video games, but they do have all sort of contraptions of interest to kids, from face-painting kits to animatronic lawn décor.

Last year’s crop of videos is still racking up traffic on YouTube, but for the Halloween store tour connoisseur, this year’s videos have gradually been popping up on the platform since September—search something like “Halloween shopping,” and they’ll populate. Not all of them have millions of views; some haven’t topped 100,000. But they’re oddly persistent. For a family channel in search of content ideas, who can resist a trip to Spirit Halloween? (Some channels actually split the Halloween trips into multiple videos.) The little girl from last year’s video that got 16 million views, for example, is back in another video that already has 4 million hits. How nice to find her a year older and once again ready to celebrate Halloween! She’s in better spirits this time around, though her younger sister bursts into tears several times during the video. The older sister plays with skeletons, tries on masks, and surveys some of the haunted house gags on display before the video eventually transitions into something called the “three-marker challenge.”

Other reliable tropes include more trying on of masks—so many masks, and does anyone ever really wear a mask and keep it on?—and the visit to the separate girls’ and boys’ costume sections to emphasize our culture’s relentless dedication to gender roles, even in childhood. The occasional genuine moment between a parent and child emerges as a high point: I liked when Ryan, of Ryan ToysReview fame (16 million subscribers), tried on giant elf ears with his mother and then pretended everything she was saying was too loud. I also liked this mom warning her gaggle not to misbehave and to put everything back where they found it—shopping isn’t all fun and games, kids! Later, she warns her son that he’s going to get tired of carrying a scythe around with his costume while trick-or-treating. Classic mom wisdom when it comes to scythes, you have to admit.

If it at all saddens you to see that stores across the country are selling the exact same mass-produced things at a bunch of identical-looking venues, as watching these videos eventually reveals, this strange corner of YouTube might not be for you. Then there’s the sad fact that many of these pop-up Halloween stores only have their plum locations in indistinguishable former big-box stores because the previous tenant went out of business—the story of the Halloween pop-up boom is also the story of the retail apocalypse. In this video, for example, a vlogger comments on the strangeness of the Halloween store sign barely even covering up the Babies“R”Us logo that used to sit outside a store. In truth, as savvy people with their own popular channels, the only reason these people aren’t buying costumes online at all is probably because they want to visit the stores to get content out of it. Come for the Halloween kitsch, stay for the sad commentary on the new economy.