WASHINGTON -- The illustrated cover of "The New Yorker" magazine this week features a group of colorful trick-or-treaters -- a witch, a ghoul, a devil, and a ghost -- cowering in fear from two approaching figures.
The two figures are wearing smiling masks of Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
The caption? "A true scare."
The magazine, which endorsed McCain's opponent, Democrat Barack Obama, for president, is obviously expressing its preference in next week's national election.
But what about the two people wearing the McCain and Palin masks? Are they supposed to be Republicans showing their support for their candidates? Or, in the spirit of the spooky Halloween holiday, are they Democrats wearing the most frightening costumes they could think of?
"I think, generally, costumes of political figures are done to get a laugh. I think they're done with a certain sense of mockery," says Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. "Adults, I think, use Halloween costumes as a form of irony, which means if you see a lot of -- and I guess we probably will see a ton of Sarah Palin costumes -- I think most of them are in the spirit of 'Saturday Night Live,' rather than in the spirit of the Republican National Convention."
Some costume stores are claiming that Halloween sales of their political candidate masks are accurate predictors of who will win the White House.
An online costume retailer, buycostumes.com, even claims to be running the Official Presidential Mask Poll, which it says has successfully mirrored the results of presidential elections since 1980. Meaning, in the first year it started keeping track of the sales of political masks, more Ronald Reagan masks sold than Jimmy Carter masks; in the next election, more Reagan masks were sold than Walter Mondale masks; then more George H.W. Bush than Michael Dukakis; and so on.
This year, buycostumes.com features fairly accurate paper masks of Barack Obama and John McCain, which it sells for $0.99 each.
"One mask equals one vote!" the website declares, adding cheekily, "This vote can be bought!"
As of October 30, sales of Obama masks were leading sales of McCain masks, 55 percent to 45 percent. Most national polls have Obama leading McCain by anywhere from 2 to 16 percentage points.
Sensing, perhaps, an opportunity for publicity, other Halloween costume companies have jumped into the political prediction game.
A Little Amazed
Dorice Dionne, who owns a chain of costume stores with a website called iparty.com, says her sales of political masks correctly predicted the White House winner in both 2004 and 2000, which was the year that Democrat Al Gore won more of the popular vote than Bush, but still lost the election. Gore masks slightly outsold Bush masks in 2000, Dionne said, still sounding a little amazed at the accuracy of it all.
She is sure iparty.com will get it right again this year. Just like the national polls, her sales have Obama in the lead.
"Even in Florida, Obama is ahead by about 30 percent in sales over the McCain masks. In the rest of our stores, overall, the whole chain, it's well over 2-to-1, Obama to McCain," Dionne says. "It's pretty dramatic, it's not close at all. And you know, this is kind of tongue in cheek and it's very quirky, but we do this for every election and pretty much it comes out true to what the election results are."
This year, an unexpectedly popular mask was McCain's running mate, Palin, whose entrance onto the national political stage in August surprised everyone -- not least, Halloween mask manufacturers.
The Alaska governor's trademark rimless eyeglasses and elaborate hairstyle caught the public's imagination -- or maybe it was her background as a moose hunter -- and Dionne's customers began asking for Palin masks and costumes.
"The demand started right away -- as soon as she came on the scene," Dionne says. "And I think that it's waned a little bit now, to tell you the truth, but as soon as there is [Palin] product in the store, it's going to fly out of here."
Syracuse University's Thompson says that's because on Halloween, people are looking to make a dramatic statement. He compares it to getting in costume and going on stage as an actor to give a performance.
And, naturally, when you spend 364 days a year in your own boring clothes, you want others to think your Halloween costume is clever. You also want them to recognize who you're pretending to be.
"Of course, in any election year, the people we keep seeing over and over, on television and in the newspaper and on the Internet and everywhere else, are these candidates, so they are the natural choice," he says.
Halloween masks of politicians are one of those things that become political memorabilia the day after the election. You keep them in a trunk somewhere and years later, pull them out and they remind you when so-and-so was running for president.
Unless, of course, it's a mask of Richard Nixon, Dionne says. Nixon masks sell well every year.