Halloween is the darkest night of the year, and everyone deserves a good scare. Throughout neighborhoods in America, the home haunters dress up the lawns and porches with wicked displays of horror, blood, and good old fashion fright that ensures kids of all ages have a scary night. These Halloween artists often share their techniques, tutorials or photos online with followers and we can’t seem to get enough. It’s quite inspiring but some less than ethical people are also using all this free information for their personal gain. Thievery disguised as homage runs rampant in the haunt community in the quest for bigger profits and to take a slice of the over $8 billion Halloween industry.
I graduated with a theater degree and I’m also a life-long horror fan. As an adult, that translates as a love of Halloween and home haunting. I see the holiday as a community event and every year I have hundreds of visitors to our quaint little display. I bought my first house in 2009 and I realized this corner lot with good-sized uncovered porch would be the perfect stage for decorating. I had dabbled in string lights and the occasional hanging ghost, but never a fully conceived display. I would buy props at after-Halloween sales and think about how to dress them up for next year’s display, eventually creating bigger and more elaborate scenes. I had a whole garage now with plenty of storage.
In 2012, I landed a fantastic pair of full-sized figures from Grandin Road – a dead bride and groom – to stand in my front window, and used the dining room inside as part of the overall display. By then, my Halloween website was up-and-running, and I was connecting with many other haunters. Much to my dismay, the conversations I was having revealed that certain retailers stole ideas from Halloween artists, reproduced them on wider scale and sold them in their stores without any credit or compensation to the original artists. One haunter pointed out that my prized bride and groom were based on artwork from William Bezek, a theater designer and artist from New York. The clothes on the figures was a little different, but the faces and overall thematic concept was unmistakably copied. I was so ashamed. Here I was trying to be a part of a community of haunters and owned what amounted to stolen goods. I contacted Grandin Road but they refused to issue a return or refund, so I was out the $400. One haunter named Pumpkinrot told me that I purchased the figures in good faith and should use them, but always mention the artist.
At the time I asked Grandin Road’s PR department for a comment but they firmly declined, and I later read on different blogs that a third-party wholesale vendor was blamed for copying the artwork from Bezek and that Grandin Road unwittingly bought and resold it. However, Grandin Road went on to do the same thing at least two more times with other artist's work and to my knowledge never compensated the original artists.
Most Halloween artists do not copyright their work, then display it publicly, and thus forgo their rights. It’s highly unethical to copy an artist’s work but it's difficult and expensive for the artist to fight it, especially against businesses with deeper pockets. And to be fair, it’s not just Grandin Road. So many retailers out there, including all the big Halloween pop-up stores, as well as other smaller Etsy sellers have been accused of stealing Halloween artist's work. One well-known and respected haunter however was quite vocal in his disdain.
Many of those in the Halloween haunter community revere the site Pumpkinrot.com. It's filled with delightfully dark photography of pumpkin creatures, scarecrows and witches that set the tone for a scary Halloween night. The reclusive artist behind the site, who went completely unnamed other than with the moniker "Rot," inspired a generation of haunters with an unmistakable signature style and his "Pumpkin Sentinel" creatures. Rot’s style has been copied, or rather stolen, many times without credit, and he often defended other Halloween artists with fervent passion on his What's Brewing blog. A post from October 20, 2017 states:
I simply do not get how someone can feel that they are truly creating if the entire premise of their work – the very end product of their hard work – exists solely because they saw it elsewhere. And I’m not even going to get into the issues I have when that person starts selling these works. Is it legal? Sure it is. Is it honest? Absolutely not.
It's a slipper slope when homage, copying, and stealing conceptual artwork gets mixed up in the brain. If something inspires you to make your own version, how much should it be changed to be cited as "your work". Yes you may have built a particular project from scratch, but how much of it was copied from someone else? The simple act of acknowledgement of the previous artist's work is the least you can do. As a haunter, I create Halloween installations (as I call them) to evoke a fun feeling of fright and wonder but I neither live in a bubble nor create completely original visions. It's an amalgamation of wicked things I've seen, countless horror movies, Halloween artists, and even other haunts. Whenever something inspires me, I point it out.
The ultimate goal is to share my work, and evoke those Halloween vibes with as many people as possible, and that means sharing on social media and my site. I hope to inspire others and if they copy my work that's great but would hope they credit me on some level. Unfortunately, unethical parties take it a step further, copy, and profit off other's creativity. This is the part that is downright insulting, and has turned many haunters bitter or made them quit altogether. But perhaps that’s the risk you take in sharing. You have to accept that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? That’s difficult to swallow when the work might end up on someone else's shelf to make them a profit. Materials to build projects aren’t free after all, and I spend countless hours in a hot garage all summer toiling away, trying to create something new and spectacularly spooky.
There is no easy answer to this conundrum but awareness in the broader Halloween community is key, especially for the younger generations of content creators who may be unaware of the history. Before you promote a business on social media and give them free advertising, think about their longstanding practices and whether their success is built on the backs of unnamed, unpaid Halloween artists whose work is stolen without consequence. Ask those tough questions, and demand that artists be treated fairly, that their work be respected, and that artists be given the appropriate credit or compensation to continue to fill our Halloween nights with frights.