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Spirit Halloween's scare factor starts in Wisconsin

(Photo courtesy of Spirit Halloween's Wikia Fandom page.

If you consider Halloween one of your favorite holidays, then you undoubtedly feel the stress of brainstorming an elaborate costume every October.

I'm one of those people. While putting probably way too much research into my look earlier this month, I mentioned to Erin Bagatta, Radio Milwaukee’s creative marketing manager, that I was heading to the Spirit Halloween in Brookfield to find some inspiration.

“My dad’s company creates the displays at all the Spirit Halloween stores,” she said.

“Like, all the Spirit Halloweens?” I responded.

Yes. All of them.

Spirit Halloween contracts with the Baird Display Division of Green Bay Packaging (GBP) located in Waukesha — where Mike Bagatta is creative director — to design, build and ship the spooky, haunting, maybe-kids-shouldn’t-see-this-type interactive displays at more than 1,450 pop-up stores throughout North America.

I had questions. A lot of questions. So I asked Erin to set up a meeting with her dad.

Getting into the spirit

Spirit Halloween started in 1984 in San Francisco and expanded to 60 stores by 1999, when it was acquired by Spencer Gifts — owners of the crude novelty store in the mall you went to growing up. The company is notorious for snatching short-term leases in former retail spaces, like strip malls, big-box stores and even this Planet Fitness.

And it works. Spirit Halloween is the largest Halloween retailer on the continent, with each of the nearly 1,500 locations sporting the same blueprint:

  • Walls lined floor-to-ceiling with costume kits
  • Rows and rows of miscellaneous props, tricks and goodies
  • A set of themed interactive displays to tie the store together

In “the business,” as Mike Bagatta explained, those displays are called in-store experiences (ISEs). Six years ago, GBP won a design challenge to earn the bid to create Spirit’s ISEs.
“Spirit Halloween is a year-round operation,” Bagatta said. “The stores are only open for maybe eight weeks before Halloween, but they're working around the clock year-round, putting in effort to make the coming year even better than the previous.”

Working in the lab

Bagatta flies (via plane, not broom) to Spirit Halloween’s headquarters near Atlantic City, N.J., several times a year to meet with executives on the design process.

“They have a launch meeting where they unveil the new concept,” he said. “They do a production-quality video that tells the story of what that theme is going to be this coming year. It’s pretty cool.”

Back in Waukesha, on Springdale Road near The Corners of Brookfield, GBP’s team works to make Spirit’s concept a reality. For 2022, the theme was “Monster Laboratory.” That entailed building an entire structure to house the creepy cast of animatronic characters, including elements that make it look like a haunted chemistry lab, such as Tesla coils and giant bubbling test tubes.

The GBP team builds all of the ISEs from sustainable corrugated cardboard and some plastic, with the finished product containing up to 150 parts and sometimes reaching 14 feet tall.

“You have to walk a fine line between something being really aesthetically cool and still be able to produce it in the factory here,” Bagatta said, sitting at his workspace with an eight-foot-tall 3D skull in the background. “Everything starts with a flat sheet of corrugated material, and what we're doing is figuring out where to put all the folds. It's like a larger origami puzzle.”

When they lock in the design, thousands of paper parts run through die-cutting machines and get shipped to stores nationwide. With so many locations, the amount of paper used could be truly frightening. That's why GBP leans so heavily on recycled products and doesn't mess around when it comes to sustainability.

Last year, the company opened a $500 million net-zero water paper mill in Green Bay, and it owns 240,000 acres of private forest land. For every tree used to make paper, Bagatta said, GBP plants two more.

Seeing your work in the wild

On top of making sure the parts fit together, GBP is in charge of creating a clear instruction manual. Then, the onus is on Spirit Halloween’s seasonal employees to construct the display at their specific store. But that's not the only place GBP's design work pops up.

For just about every holiday on the calendar, large-scale food and alcohol displays sprout up at your local grocery store. Heineken, Pacífico, White Claw and Kraft Foods (among others) rely on Bagatta's company to grab your attention for their products. But GBP is local, too, working with smaller clients like MobCraft Brewery in Walker’s Point.

“It's exciting when you actually go to a store and see something that you've worked on,” Bagatta said. “If it's in good shape, that's obviously a good thing. If it's serving its purpose and a lot of products are being sold off of it, or if it's driving sales, then it's pretty satisfying.”

88Nine Social Media Manager | Radio Milwaukee