BRICK TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Darkness had fallen by the time a crew unloaded the 17 boxes filled with bones from a truck on a Thursday night in September.
After all the boxes were carried into a Home Depot near the Jersey Shore, some of them were placed near its entrance, while others spent the night in a holding area usually reserved for lumber. The next morning, at 5 a.m., workers unpacked a box and assembled its contents. Soon after, one by one, the boxes disappeared. By noon three days later, all were gone.
Each box had been sold for $299, some to shoppers who had spent years trying to get their hands on the decorative 12-foot-tall skeleton inside, which has been nicknamed Skelly. Since its introduction in 2020, the skeleton has for many come to represent the face — or at least the cheekbones, eye sockets and mandible — of Halloween.
“Oh my God, they have it — they actually have it,” Nicole Kebea said when she arrived at the store around 9 a.m. on Saturday.
Ms. Kebea, 38, a chief of staff at the insurance company Prudential Financial, and her husband, Jared Kebea, 45, an operations manager at Amazon, had been looking for it since July. The couple, who live in Brick, had visited the Home Depot five times, hoping to intercept one of the skeleton shipments that arrive at stores throughout the summer and fall.
After claiming their Skelly, Mr. Kebea loaded the 85.5-pound box (roughly 60 pounds of skeleton and 25 pounds of packaging) onto an orange dolly and wheeled it toward a self-checkout kiosk. Ms. Kebea texted their 9-year-old son to tell him about their good fortune.
“You guys are crazy,” he wrote back.
That afternoon, Marissa Santiago, 32, arrived at the store around 1 p.m. On one arm she had a jack-o’-lantern purse and on the other, a skull tattoo. Ms. Santiago, who lives in Lanoka Harbor, N.J., had been hunting for the skeleton for two years, estimating that she had made more than 15 trips and 50 calls to Home Depot stores around New Jersey.
“If something is hard to get or I know that I can’t have it, I want it more,” said Ms. Santiago, who works at an auto repair shop.
Inside the Brick store, near the plumbing aisle, Skelly stood in front of a cluster of 5-foot skeletons that barely grazed its kneecaps. The larger skeleton’s eyes — two LCD screens with motion sensors — appeared to follow customers as they passed, with several shoppers stopping to curl their hands around its index finger like infants exercising their grasp reflex.
“You can see it from a mile away,” said George Baskinger, 39, a business developer at a biotech company, who bought the skeleton hoping it would draw more trick-or-treaters to his house in Franklin Lakes, N.J. Driving home from the store, he and his wife, Robin Baskinger, 35, a middle school vice principal, got pulled over on the Garden State Parkway, she said. “We have all these bones in our car,” Ms. Baskinger said, recalling the incident in a phone interview in October. “A couple of arms and legs lying across the floor of the back seat.” But the officer did not ask questions, and they got the skeleton home without further delays.
Jon Bodi, 57, the manager at the Home Depot in Brick, said he had never witnessed such a frenzy for an item in his 13 years of working there. “If they find out someone has it, they will track it down,” he said.
When asked why it is so big, Mr. Bodi replied, “That’s the great question.” He added, “Everybody stops and looks, that I can tell you.”
From Hardware to Horror
A chain of home improvement stores may seem an unlikely destination on the fall activity circuit. But for some parents, including Starri Taddeo, 32, visiting the Home Depot with their children has become akin to apple picking and pumpkin carving.
“It’s free entertainment,” Ms. Taddeo said as her 4-year-old son, Gatsby, and 2-year-old daughter, Gigi, played near the Brick store’s Halloween display, which seemed more fit for an amusement park than a hardware store. In addition to decorative human skeletons, it featured undead poodles ($35) and turtles ($13), pumpkin scented pine cones ($18), a green goblin that cackled while pulling a skull out of a burlap sack ($149), and a 9-foot-7-inch werewolf with six-pack abs ($399). After the Taddeos had had their fill of the store’s decorations, they drove home to Brielle, N.J., with a Skelly.
The Home Depot, which opened its first stores in Atlanta in 1978, started selling Halloween décor 35 years later, in 2013. Though the company had by then started to sell other large holiday decorations — including a 6-foot tinsel snowman and Christmas inflatables — the Home Depot wasn’t necessarily on the radars of “Halloween enthusiasts,” said Lance Allen, the company’s senior merchant for decorative holiday décor, in a video call. “I almost feel like it was a hidden market that was being missed out on until we started making these amazing pieces.”
Since 2013, American consumers’ spending on Halloween — including on candy to give out and on parties — has grown, rising from some $7 billion that year to an estimated $10.6 billion in 2022, according to data from the National Retail Federation, a trade group. The holiday’s emphasis on both costumes and decorations makes it ripe for experimenting with attention-grabbing products, said Katherine Cullen, the senior director of industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation. “People are looking for things that have a big visual impact, so things that stand out in that aspect are probably positioned for success.”
In 2019, after Mr. Allen saw a “giant” skull and rib cage at the TransWorld Halloween & Attractions show in St. Louis, he pitched adding a 10-foot skeleton to the Home Depot’s lineup of Halloween goods. But “everybody knows that 10 feet is a basketball hoop,” he said, and soon the concept had grown to 12 feet.
To produce the skeleton, which is made in China, the company worked with the manufacturer Seasonal Visions International, in California. Drawings on paper evolved into computer renderings, which were then printed in 3-D. Skelly’s roughly 164 bones, about 80 percent of the 206 in an adult human body, are made of plastic. When Mr. Allen looked at prototypes in November 2019, he said the neck appeared much too long for the already stretched out body. “We actually had to remove a couple vertebrae,” he said.
The skeleton’s legs and spine are hollow to accommodate steel support poles that are anchored by a steel base. Its stability was tested with winds at speeds between 25 and 31 miles per hour, said Rachel Little, a senior product engineer at the Home Depot. “Making sure that he could stay standing through that was probably the biggest struggle,” she said.
Its box includes 29 pieces, along with an Allen wrench for assembly. (Not included are the four C batteries required to power its eyes, or the Phillips head screwdriver needed to screw the battery compartment shut.) In July 2020, the Home Depot released the 12-foot skeleton on its website, where it notes that the product is technically only a little more than 11-feet-8-inches tall. A month later, in August 2020, Skelly debuted in stores.
Scary Good Timing
The timing was scary good. The product went on sale leading into the first holiday season of the coronavirus pandemic, when many stuck at home scaled up their decorations to boost their moods. People were also spending more time online, where Skelly became a hit as photos and videos of the skeleton in absurd scenarios spread.
On TikTok, videos tagged #12ftskeleton collectively have more than 70 million views; one clip posted to the app in September 2020 showing Skelly sprawled belly-up on the roof of a Mini Cooper has more than two million views. Instagram users including Kourtney Kardashian Barker have shared photos of their skeletons, some of which have been accessorized with beach balls, college T-shirts and rainbow Pride flags. A map published by the blog-style news website Hell Gate lists locations in New York where people can see Skelly.
Reports from the Home Depot that the skeleton sold out in 2020, and again in 2021, intensified interest in it. The reported scarcity has led some resellers to list it at double or even more than triple the retail price, and other people to snatch the skeleton out of front yards.
But just how many 12-foot skeletons have been sold is a number that the Home Depot appears prepared to take to the grave. Tyler Pelfrey, a manager of brand communications at the company, said, “We are unable to share the number of products we sell.” He also declined to comment on what percentage of the Home Depot’s sales came from Halloween products before and after Skelly was introduced.
This year, since April, the company has been releasing skeletons in limited quantities. Closely monitoring those drops is Randy Motes, one of two administrators of a Facebook group called “12 Ft Skeleton Halloween Club,” which was created by Jennifer Penelope Corcoran in September 2020. The group has more than 50,000 members, many of whom notify each other when the product is in stock, share ways to fortify Skelly against the elements and exchange tips for catching thieves. (Those recommendations include attaching a motorcycle alarm or an Apple AirTag.)
Mr. Motes, 51, a general contractor in Dallas, said that between June and the end of October in 2021 and 2022, he has spent about 40 hours a week monitoring the skeleton Facebook group and the Home Depot app, which notes stock numbers after the company releases new batches of skeletons online and at stores.
There have been about 20 online releases this year, in quantities ranging from about 500 to 10,000, Mr. Motes said, adding that individual stores typically receive fewer than 50 skeletons at a time. Mr. Motes and Ms. Corcoran invented a metric to describe how quickly the product sells: “S.P.M.,” which stands for “Skellys per minute.” Mr. Motes has calculated that the most skeletons he has seen sell in a 60-second span is 41.
Mr. Motes’s relationship with the Home Depot is more than just an outside observer. In June, the company flew him to Atlanta to appear in a video promoting this year’s Halloween décor, which was later distributed to media outlets.
He said that during the drive to the location of the video shoot, he had to put on a blindfold for the last two miles of the trip so that his initial reaction to the decorations could be captured on camera. The filming took place in the dark, for maximum spookiness, and went on until around 3 a.m. “Then they took it all down and did it all for the Christmas release,” he said.
‘Cool for, Like, a Day’
Skeletons were a Halloween staple long before Skelly, and the Home Depot, existed. But the apparent demand for souped-up versions has led other chain stores to get in on the bone rush.
Walmart carries a 10-foot skeleton for $289. Spirit Halloween debuted a $299 six-foot skeleton that moves and speaks last year. Best Buy introduced a skeleton in 2021, too: The $350 decoration, also manufactured by Seasonal Visions International, is eight feet tall, has LED eyes and may look the most like Skelly of them all.
The skeleton bought at the Brick Home Depot by the Taddeo family now looms over Scooby-Doo and Jack Skellington inflatables in their front yard. The décor, which they have named Jerry the Skelly, has been a hit in their neighborhood, where Ms. Taddeo said her son, Gatsby, “tells everyone he encounters that he has a 12-foot skeleton.”
After setting up the Skelly she had purchased in Brick, Ms. Santiago, who had spent two years hunting for one, said it blew over when the remnants of Hurricane Ian hit her home near the Jersey Shore. The skeleton sustained fractures to its arm and skull. She contacted the manufacturer for replacement bones, but has yet to receive a response.
“It was cool for, like, a day,” Ms. Santiago said in a phone interview in October. By then she had glued the skeleton’s arm back together herself, and the incident had her wondering if the product that she had coveted for so long was all it was cracked up to be.
“Like, why was I so obsessed with this?”