You’re a kid in the mid-80s. October has rolled around and one of the most pressing concerns of the entire year is staring you straight in the face: what are you going to be for Halloween? There are now so many options and great new characters that would make for a perfect Halloween costume. Do you beg your parents to buy the store version, or do you try to recreate it yourself at home? The big night comes and as you hear Thriller and the Ghostbusters theme blasting from houses, you hope that this will be your biggest candy haul ever.
On today’s journey, we travel back in time see what the most popular costumes were for each year, the most coveted and top-selling candy of the decade, and what some of our favorite Halloween moves were: This is… Halloween in the 80s.
The Origins of Trick-or-Treating
So it’s the big yearly question that faces kids everywhere: what are you going to be for Halloween? The act of trick or treating can be dated all the way back to the middle ages, where people would dress up and perform skits or short plays for people in exchange for food or drinks. This seemed to transform over to the October 31st festival of the Celts, where they exchanged the costumes for scarier ones but still went door to door looking for free stuff.
In the 1500s, Scottish kids adopted the ritual, as did kids in the UK. This continued into the late 180os and was called Souling or Guising. It still had a sense of mischief to it and to carry out these acts after dark, some kids would use scooped out large vegetables with a candle in them to serve as a lantern, creating the origins for our modern Jack-o’-lanterns.
Eventually, this carried over to North America and trick or treating, as we now know it may have originated here in Canada. Some of the first reports of this door-to-door souling or guising in North America took place in Kingston, Ontario, around 1911. And one of the first mentions of the word Trick or treat has been traced back to a newspaper in Alberta, Canada in 1927. The modern incarnation of Trick or treating seems to have spread to the US sometime in the 1930s. By the mid-50s, trick-or-treating was fully established as an unofficial holiday by kids everywhere.
And when it came to costumes in those late 1800s and early 1900s; it was always standard witches and ghost costumes. Then, in the 1900s through the 1920s, mass-produced paper costumes came onto the scene. The Dennison Paper Company introduced new non-frightening options, such as animals. They were cheap, meant to be used once, and then thrown away. It was the Dennison company that’s seen as creating the Halloween color scheme of yellow, black, orange, and purple that we now associate with this time of year.
Boxed costumes rose to prominence in the 30s and 40s and featured more well-known characters from radio shows, cartoons, and books. By the 50s, and with the advent of TV, the characters of the small screen made their way to our stores. Popular options included Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Little Orphan Annie, and Donald Duck. In the 60s, and with more TV shows on the air, top choices included The Beatles, The Addams Family, and even Flipper the Dolphin. In the 70s, real-life costumes like the Coneheads from Saturday Night Live, and John Travolta in Grease were top choices.
But as we ushered in the 1980s, an avalanche of new licensed characters were introduced, giving us more Halloween options than ever before. This was a period where there was a 300% increase inn these new licensed characters, and without any of the earlier advertising restrictions, companies could use an intellectual property on any piece of merchandise you could think of and shove it in our faces–and that, of course, included Halloween costumes.
What Was the Most Popular Halloween Costumes of the 80s?
There were more choices than ever before. You could pay good money for the official store version, or try to make a homemade alternative like I did one year with my utterly pathetic attempt at a G.I. Joe costume. No one knew what the hell I was, and I went home completely devastated.
But what was the most popular costume for each year during the 80s? One great resource is The Post Standard in Syracuse. They looked into their archives to see what the hot costumes were for each year, and when you look deeper, this seems to be the case across the board. Let’s break it down by year.
A new decade has begun. There is some carryover influence from the 1970s, but when it came to that year’s Halloween, some new characters had recently arrived on the scene. One of the most popular costumes for 1980 was Strawberry Shortcake. The Empire Strikes Back had just come out a few months prior, and Yoda was a hot choice. As was Darth Vader.
1980 was also an election year, and many kids and adults donned Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter masks. But one of the most iconic horror villains of all time was released into the world in 1980. This was Jason from the Friday the 13th movies making the simple–yet frightening–character a go-to option every year from that point forward.
In 1981, Strawberry shortcake was even more popular, and store-bought and homemade costumes dominated trick-or-treating that year. It was the perfect costume, as it was very easily recreated at home and was also instantly identifiable.
Star Wars, as usual, was popular, but some new characters from the small screen had also grown in popularity, including those from the Dukes of Hazzard. Also, big that year were classic go-to’s such as Batman, Superman, and Looney Tunes characters.
But a newer character was also one of the top costumes of 1981 and it caused green paint supplies to dwindle. It was the Incredible Hulk. The Hulk was another easy-to-create costume that was instantly recognizable, but it cost a small fortune in green paint. Fun fact: one year a friend and I decided to go as superman and we found some blue paint that we thought was costume, body paint and proceeded to spray our arms and legs with what turned out to be permanent acrylic spray paint. This was on me for weeks as I had to wear long sleeves and pants everywhere I went so that I didn’t look like Tobias on Arrested Development when he joined the blue man group.
But speaking of blue, the smurfs were one of the most popular Halloween costumes In 1982, and just like the Incredible Hulk popularity of the prior years, stores had trouble keeping blue paint in stock. Halloween of 1982 was also all about ET. 1982 was a very interesting year in the history of Halloween, as this was the year that retailers noticed how much more commercial Halloween was getting.
ET was such a hit that Universal Pictures wanted a piece of any of the marketing. A movie-quality ET mask would set you back around 75. Adjust this for inflation and you’re staring down the barrel of $230. Yowza. Some other licensed characters that were top choice for Halloween of that year included Pac-Man, as Pac-Man fever continued to grip the world.
also big that year was the classic standby Little Orphan Annie. But now, in 1982, we had a new version of her. The new Annie movie came out in May of 82 and the iconic character was more popular than ever before. Besides fictitious characters, some real-life people were popular choices for that year’s Halloween, including Prince Charles and Lady Diana, who had just been married a year earlier.
It’s 1983 and Return of the Jedi has hit theaters. Star Wars costumes are as popular as ever before. But some new characters were seen going door to door that year: Ewoks. And another classic 1980s character just came on the scene: He-Man. He-Man was a tougher costume to pull off on your own, but you may remember the store version, which was basically a jacked cartoon body on a plastic smock with a cheap mask you could barely breathe out of. I am proud to say I actually had this costume, but almost passed out because of the lack of adequate breathing holes in the incredibly cheap mask.
But a new real-life character would also be one of the top costume choices for Halloween of 1983. Madonna had just put out her first album and her unique look made for a perfect costume. But store owners noticed a problem with trying to stock Madonna costumes. Since she was always reinventing herself, one look could become instantly outdated, leaving them with a lot of unsold merchandise.
1984 was when Ronald Reagan officially lifted all advertising restrictions, meaning companies could promote to kids more than ever before. And the new characters came flooding in for Halloween of 1984. The CBC reported that this change created a booming business for big department stores as there were now more pop culture characters than ever before. Store shelves were lined with so many costumes of new characters from TV and cartoon shows that they could barely fit all of them.
Some of the top choices that year included Care Bears, Garfield, Snoopy, Pac-Man, and a new creation called the Cabbage Patch Kid. These were great options because again, you could attempt to make your own homemade version and create a pretty close likeness.
And, of course, there was one of the most perfect Halloween/movie combinations ever: Ghostbusters. Ghostbuster costumes were everywhere, but store owners had a tough problem on their hands. They needed enough costumes and accessories to cover the hot look of the year, but then knew they may be sitting on a lot of unsold inventory the next year, as is the case with fads.
Then there was another real-life superhero that many kids wanted to go as: Lawrence Tureaud, but you may know him better as Mr. T and because of the success of the A-Team, this was another top costume choice for Halloween of 1984.
We’re at the halfway point of the decade and stores noticed that there was a return to more traditional costumes that year. Maybe it was because parents were sick of having to shell out for this tidal wave of new licensed characters. But either way, popular costumes that year included homemade Raggedy Ann and Dracula costumes.
This isn’t to say the commercial options weren’t still going strong. Some of the top store-bought, boxed costume options of that year included G.I. Joe, Voltron, and Superman. And another little movie by the name of Back to the Future dominated 1985 and Marty McFlys and Doc Browns were seen trick or treating everywhere.
1985 was also when Hulkamania was running wild and he and the iconic Elvira were popular choices for this year.
1986 is a bit of a weird year as there’s not a lot of data for what were the top-selling costumes. This may have also been a year where a lot of kids who were trick or treating in the early 80s were now too old, and a newer crop of kids didn’t necessarily have an interest in GI Joe, Care Bears, or Strawberry Shortcake.
National Theme Productions, which was the nation’s largest designer and retailer of costumes, said ninja warriors were one of the top choices that year as was sexy witch–which is my go-to Halloween choice.
This was also the year when the retailers were really learning how dangerous following pop culture trends could be. Things were changing so quickly that stocking thousands of Boy George wigs and hats could leave you sitting on a mountain of unsold inventory. One retailer said how he had to cut the braids off of thousands of Boy George hats just to try to sell them off. Said another retailer “to make guesses on whether Madonna is going to look like Madonna next year is hard to do.”
It seemed like we were back to the classic frightening Halloween costumes that year because of the introduction of a new horror icon: Freddy Krueger. The costume, which was kind of re-creatable at home, just wouldn’t look right without the iconic bladed glove. For this reason, plenty of people had no problem plunking down $79.99 to get an official Freddy Kruger costume. Adjust that for today, and it’s about $200 smackeroos.
Also big was Jason from the Friday the 13th movies. Horror characters seemed to be back in a big way. But for those wanting to go a different route, this was the year Robocop was released, and it was the perfect choice for a homemade Halloween costume. Even if you ended up looking like a recycling box of tin cans, you at least thought you looked like the real thing.
Halloween of 1988 was an interesting one and one of the top costumes for that year was from a very unexpected marketing success story: The California Raisins
If you didn’t grow up in the 80s, it’s hard to explain the phenomenon of the California Raisins. These were stop motion, claymation, singing raisins that seemed to take the world by storm. And it was one of the hottest costumes of that year. Homemade versions may have looked like giant prunes, figs, or shrunken heads, but at least they were out there.
Also plugging away for one of the top costumes of 1988 was the old faithful: Garfield
The 1980s are about to come to a close but are not going out without a bang. Thanks to the monumental blockbuster Batman, the caped crusader was the hands-down choice for the top costume of 1989. But don’t ignore Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Consumer shops were quickly selling out of face paint and any type of clown makeup for people to create the look at home.
And another iconic toy franchise was just getting underway, which would become a costume staple for years to come: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Top Candy of the 80s
So you’ve got your costume, you’ve got your plastic jack-o’-lantern bucket–or in my case, garbage bag–and you’re ready to hit the neighborhoods. Words is quickly spreading about which streets and houses are handing out the good stuff and you adjust your trick-or-treating route strategy as needed as you’re ready to score enough candy to fill a hot tub.
But what were you on the hunt for? What were the top candies we wanted? Narrowing down the top candies is difficult, as distribution and locality determine much of what’s available and popular. In recent years, candystore.com has begun tracking the most popular Halloween Candy, and it seems as if candy, similar to fashion, appears to be cyclical as the popular fruity candies of the 80s are back.
in the top ten. Right now, the top Halloween candy in order is:
- Reese’s peanut butter cups
- Hot Tamales
- Candy Corn
- Sour patch Kids
- Hershey’s Kisses
- Jolly Ranchers
And then what is the most hated Halloween candy besides that one house that always hands out walnuts and toothbrushes?
- Candy Corn
- Peanut Butter Kisses
- Circus Peanuts
- Wax Coke bottles
- Smarties (which I 100% don’t agree with)
- Necco Wafers
- Tootsie Roles
- Mary Janes (that’s Janes, not Jane…)
- Good and Plenty
So back in the 80s, how did this stack up? What were some of the most popular candies for each year according to sources like Eat this, not that, and Insider?
In 1980, believe it or not, Ronald Reagan’s love of Jelly Beans made them a best-seller. But new novelty candies like Ring Pops had gained in popularity. Also released in 1980, but was tough to come by at Halloween, was one of the greatest variety store choices of the decade: the iconic Big League Chew.
In 1981, we are back to our good old standby: Chocolate. This was the year when the Skor bar was released. Made of thin, brittle butter toffee and coated in chocolate, the Skor bar wouldn’t make it to Canada until 1983 and was Hershey’s version of the Heath bar. Finding a skor bar in your trick-or-treat bag would be the equivalent of finding gold.
In 1982, a little movie called E.T. made everyone discover their love for Reese’s Pieces when they were featured in the movie. Hershey–who makes Reeses Pieces– reported sales were up nearly 70% after E.T. came out. Some say it may have been as much as 85%. At first, Steven Spielberg approached M&M’s to be used in the movie, as it seemed like a natural tie-in. And unfortunately for M&M’s, this clearly didn’t happen. Instead, an executive at Universal Pictures asked his son what his favorite candy was, and when he was told Reeses Pieces, it changed the candy game for 1982.
In 1983, Skittles were dominating the candy landscape. Skittles go back as far as 1974 when they were produced in the Uk. They came to North America in 1979 and got their full distribution in 82 and dominated Halloween of 1983 and most of the decade. But also hot on their heels was one of my personal favorites, NERD candy.
In 1984, we stuck with our chewy gummy favorites as Laffy Taffy became one of the top candy choices of that year.
The Cabbage Patch Kid is one of the defining toys of the entire 1980s. This is one of the greatest toy frenzies of all time, and an older candy from my home province of Ontario would capitalize on this.
In the 1970s, we had a sour gummy candy called Mars Men. They were in the shape of little Martians and were made by the M&A Candy company and capitalized on the space enthusiasm of that time period. When the Cabbage Patch Kids crazy hit in 1983, the company made the smart decision to jump on the bandwagon and recreate Mars Men into Sour Patch Kids. They were already a big hit and when they were introduced to US markets in 1985, really exploded.
As we head into 1986, it was all about Air Heads. Another Taffy-based candy, the Air Heads name, was chosen by the sons of the inventor, Steve Bruner.
Airheads continued to be a top candy for 1987 and would be a prized possession if found in your candy bag on Halloween night.
In 1988, gummy candies had taken on a life of their own. The standard gummy bears have always been a top seller, but at this point in the 80s, new European version had made it to North America, as had new shapes. Gummy snakes, spiders, and other objects you couldn’t always identify were the go-to candy choices.
As the decade comes to a close, it was still about novelty candies. Push Pops, and Bubble Tape were the top items, but chocolate was still hanging on as 1989 was when Hersey released the Symphony Bar, a glorious combination of chocolate, almonds, and toffee.
So, overall, what candy did we covet the most in the 80s? According to Insider magazine, the top-selling candy for the entire decade was… Skittles. This was a carry-over from the 1970s when the most popular candies were things like Sour Patch Kids, Gummy bears, and Ring Pops making gummy-based candy the dominant choice for the 1980s.
What is Our Favorite Halloween Movies?
It’s the week leading up to Halloween and the networks are running some beloved Halloween shows. Classics like It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, Garfield’s Halloween Adventure (Which actually won an Emmy), and deep cuts like Disney’s Mr. Boogedy are some go-to choices.
But On the horror side, some of the genre’s very best came out in the 1980s and the 80s could be considered the definitive horror decade. Here is just a sampling of classic releases. :
- The Shining
- Children of the Corn
- Child’s Play
- Silent Night, Deadly Night
- Pet Cemetary
- Friday the 13th
- The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2
- A Nightmare of Elm street
- The Thing
- And Aliens which is basically a horror movie set in space.
But depending on your age, some of these films may have been off-limits. What are the tamer Halloween movies from the 80s that continue to be the most popular to this day? Well, the US Dish Network actually looked into this and identified each state’s most preferred PG Halloween movie. They looked through Google for some of the most popular PG Halloween movies, then looked for the ones with the highest keyword ranking. Then, the top choices were entered into Google Trends to see what was the most popular in each state.
The list includes many modern Halloween movies, but four 80s classics made the cut that aren’t even necessarily Halloween-centered. And 18 different states preferred the 1980s options. Here’s how it breaks down.
The top Halloween movie for Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, South Dakota, and Vermont is Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice fun fact: even though he is the focus of the entire movie, the character of Beetlejuice only appears on screen for just 17 minutes.
The favorite Halloween Movie for Florida, Hawaii, Maine, and Maryland is ET–which I’ve always believed is a Halloween movie in the way Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Here are a few notable things about ET. If you haven’t seen it in a while, watch how the entire movie is filmed at a kid’s eye level. This was Spielberg’s way to make us connect with Elliot and see the world from his perspective. The movie was shot in chronological order so it made sense for the child actors, and a young Drew Barrymore actually improvised a lot of her lines.
The top choice for Idaho, Missoura, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin is the iconic Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters was considered a tremendous risk at the time and the studio had no faith in it. It is now in the 50 highest-grossing films of all time. Also, Chevy Chase turned down the role of Venkman and Eddie Murphy turned down the role of Winston.
And an unexpected entry all on its own is Gremlins, and that is the favorite Halloween movie for North Dakota. My favorite Gremlins fun fact is the town square is the same set used for downtown hill valley from Back to the Future.
So that was Halloween in the 80s!