The Spirit Halloween store closest to Kotaku's US office is in a brightly lit basement. The walls are cement, and the interior of the store is a loose collection of temporary shelves. Every part of this store is crammed with costumes, either individual parts like wigs or facepaint, or entire outfits in a plastic container. As I lurk near the children's Fortnite section, I overhear two kids arguing with their parents about whether or not they can be Fortnite skins for Halloween.
"I said I wanted a Brite Bomber costume," says one of the kids, a little blonde girl, to her mother. Her friend — whose name I learned was Max when his mother chided him by name for pressing all the buttons on a toy gun — picked up a Drift mask, only for his mum to tell him to put it back.
"You know the problem with a full face mask," she told him, "You never want to wear it for the whole night."
Fortnite Halloween costumes are incredibly popular. When I reached out to Spirit, the only company that sells officially licensed Fortnite costumes, they wouldn't give me exact numbers but said that these costumes are flying off the shelves.
After visiting a store, I believe it. Less than a minute after I walked into the store, I ran into a confused dad trying to find a Cuddle Team Leader mask. In researching this new trend, I've received emails from parents and teachers describing the same thing: kids want to be Fortnite skins for Halloween, even if their parents aren't as into the idea.
When I was in the Spirit store, I scoped out both the kids' and adults' Fortnite sections. The store had a lot of skins on offer; Cuddle Team Leader's bright pink outfit stood out, as did the purple Brite Bomber costume. Skull Trooper outfits had been picked over. The accessories impressed me most. If you want, you can buy a Boogie Bomb to carry around, which lights up and plays music. I don't even play Fortnite, and I was tempted by that one.
One employee I spoke with, Ivan, doesn't play Fortnite either, but verified that they can't keep the costumes on the shelves.
"Fortnite stuff sells as soon as we get it," he said. "We'll get in a shipment and it sells out in an hour."
Another Spirit store employee, Zoe, a journalism student who told me she reads Kotaku for her Overwatch news, said that they were on their fifth shipment of Fortnite paraphernalia.
"With every shipment of costumes we get every Tuesday, the Skull Trooper and Black Knight sold out almost immediately," she later told me over email. "Most kids as a last ditch effort would just get the Cuddle Team Leader just so they have something Fortnite-related on them." She did also add that the adult costumes aren't nearly as popular.
There are other video game costumes available in the store, but nothing was as fawned over as Fortnite when I visited. There's a large section of Overwatch, Halo and Assassin's Creed costumes for adults, but they didn't have customers gathered around, and all appeared to be fully stocked in comparison to the Fortnite section. If you're a kid, you can also get a Five Nights At Freddy's costume, but none of the children seemed interested.
Last week, I went to a Party City, and their offerings were even smaller in terms of gaming costumes. There were Zelda, Mario, Halo and Overwatch outfits, but the video game-themed section was by far the smallest in the store. It's not like kids weren't interested in geeky stuff, either — one girl I saw kept shouting "Supergirl! Supergirl!" at her largely disinterested mum — but based on the trends, it sounds like if kids want to do something video game related for Halloween, it's Fortnite or bust.
It's not as if these other gaming costumes look any less cool than the Fortnite ones, but they're just not in the zeitgeist right now. If Halloween is any indication, Fortnite's popularity with children hasn't wavered one iota. Who wants to be Altair or D.va when you can be a Dark Voyager? There's something Halloween-y in the spirit of Fortnite as well.
These costumes read as spooky, fierce or scary, but are also lighthearted and fun, just like the game. Spirit even offers a 5.18m inflatable bus as a decoration on their site. Imagine seeing that in a suburban lawn while you're trick or treating — it would be like stepping into another world.
That said, the kids I saw pleading with their parents to get them Fortnite costumes are not the only ones out there having that experience. Not all parents are as enthusiastic about this trend as their kids are. There are a couple of factors that play into parents' reluctance, Spirit employee Zoe told me. One understandable source of hesitation is the price.
"These costumes go for about 60 dollars and no coupons work on them," she said. Another issue that Zoe noticed, however, was parents of little girls trying to steer them away from Fortnite costumes in favour of more stereotypically "girly" outfits.
"Despite having costumes like Cuddle Team Leader or Brite Bomber (marketed towards girls)," she said, "some parents I saw would try and get a simple unicorn or princess like outfit for their girls."
One parent I spoke to over email, Tero, said that Fortnite has been an opportunity for his ten-year-old son and his friends to express themselves, although he also says that other parents he knows don't see it that way. These other parents, he said, say that Fortnite costumes are "unimaginative," but he doesn't agree.
"I would say maybe one quarter of parents here in Ridgefield, CT forbid Fortnite entirely and many of the ones who allow it are reluctant to go with the Halloween outfits," he wrote. "But what's interesting is that even though the macho killer avatars are popular, boys really like combining them with wacky attributes — rainbow unicorn axe, etc. So it's not as cookie cutter as it seems — the wacky and comical elements are as popular as the sinister commando stuff. I find that interesting."
He added that he's seen kids combine the Dark Knight outfit with cherry blossom umbrellas, just as they might customise their avatars in-game.
McKay, who used to be a fourth grade teacher, described their students' enthusiasm for Fortnite as "adorable." Two of their students had planned to be Fortnite skins this year, and five had done it the year previous.
"They couldn't believe I played games and were just so excited to talk about it — very reminiscent of how I'm sure i was with Pokémon and other games in my own childhood," McKay said. "They would also do the dances ANY time we had a dance party, it was amazing."
Tero has tried to harness that enthusiasm in his own household to open up conversations on the things these skins are based on.
"The avatars are actually endlessly inventive and varied, opening up discussions about Norse mythology, national pastimes and different cultures," he said. "Fortnite is [my son's] generation's touchstone — their social network, team building exercise, narrative. There is nothing as boring and predictable as suburban Connecticut backlash against kids wanting to express themselves in their own way."
As I checked out of the store — I was picking up a devil tail and horns for my incredibly slutty demon cheerleader costume, which isn't a Fortnite skin but maybe it should be — Max and his friend were still debating the pros and cons of Fortnite costumes with their parents. I reflected on all the weird and sometimes nerdy shit I had been for Halloween as a kid. One year I was Haruhara Haruko from FLCL; another year, I was Sailor Saturn from Sailor Moon.
Both of these costumes were hand-made by my mum, and when I went trick-or-treating, no one knew who I was. It didn't matter to me at that age. I was just happy to have adults take an interest in my current obsession (or, at least, listen politely in the doorway as I explained my costume to them), and to dress up as characters that I identified with or admired.
It was a bonding experience for me and my mother, who still really doesn't get why I love anime and video games so much. If your kid is begging to be a Fortnite skin this year, maybe just listen to them. After hearing their lengthy explanation of what Tricera Ops is, you might just feel closer to your kid.