- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2001

Mike Henderson plays with a dangling skeleton in the back of Halloween Express as if they were old buddies.

The $75 skeleton, propped up on a wooden ladder, is part of the Hall of Horrors, a dark exhibit of terror with mummies, severed heads, brewing caldrons and spooky spiders.

As chief of operations at Halloween Express, it's Mr. Henderson's job to create and design the inside of the company's three stores striking a balance between nonthreatening props and haunting costumes ands accessories.

The Hall of Horrors is just one of his creations.

"It's really enjoyable," Mr. Henderson said. "I'm much more interested in the process creating it and setting it up."

On this afternoon Mr. Henderson is busy preparing the store at Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg for its busiest weekend yet.

He's tidying up, making sure shelves are stocked, freshening up the scary displays and helping customers find that perfect costume just days before Halloween.

The 7,000-square-foot space, formerly an American Eagle Outfitters store, has been temporarily transformed into a Halloween spectacle.

Bats are flying overhead, loud Halloween music is playing in the front of the store. A machine dispenses fog every three minutes that spills eerily into the aisles of costumes.

Mr. Henderson, dressed in a bright orange company T-shirt with striped suspenders, walks through the store evaluating the merchandise, which includes more than 7,500 different items.

He claps twice and a spider crawls down from the ceiling.

The rest of the staff, also dressed in orange T-shirts, are unloading boxes full of wigs and makeup. The store is fully stocked and bustling with customers of all ages.

Little girls run to the Josie and the Pussycats display by the register while a young boy races down the aisles with a bloody sword. Teen-agers are driven to the glow-in-the-dark section where everything is illuminated with a black light. Men in business suits browse the display of gothic costumes and search through monster masks.

One woman looks troubled as she tries to decide between two costumes she's holding in her hand. Mr. Henderson directs her to the dressing rooms in the back, located across from the Hall of Horrors.

"I appreciate a customer who takes time to get what they want," he says.

U.S. consumers are planning to spend on average about $61 on Halloween this year, according to the International Mass Retail Association. That's up almost 42 percent from last year when individual shoppers spent $43 on Halloween.

Mr. Henderson says "it's been a good year" despite the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that may have knocked the Halloween spirit out of some.

"People want to celebrate," he said. "They need the escape."

There hasn't been much demand for patriotic costumes, firefighters or police officers, nor has there been any shortage of people looking for gory costumes, he says.

Mr. Henderson splits his workweek between the Lakeforest store and the two other Halloween Express locations in Springfield Mall in Virginia and Marley Station Mall in Baltimore.

Mr. Henderson, who has worked in theater as an actor and behind the scenes, has been with Halloween Express for three years.

Mr. Henderson and Halloween Express' owner Michael Greene are usually thinking about Halloween long before most people do.

In the spring, they are scouting out sites at area shopping centers and placing merchandise orders. Mr. Henderson already starts thinking about what kind of scenes he'll create whether it's a graveyard full of haunting ghosts or skeletons sitting around a television before opening the stores in late summer.

Halloween Express marks down all of its merchandise by 50 percent on Nov. 1. The staff then spends a few days counting inventory and packing up leftover costumes and props to sell next year. By Nov. 4, Halloween Express will be gone.

"It'll be like we were never here," Mr. Greene says.

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