Spooky Data?

Would you believe Minnesota’s Twin Cities rank first and second on a list of the United States’ 100 best cities for celebrating Halloween this year?

So says a new study from WalletHub, a personal finance social network founded by Evolution Finance. The same study ranks Winston-Salem, North Carolina, last, behind Anchorage, Alaska, and Detroit, Michigan.

Despite the study’s conclusions, though, you won’t see me booking a flight to rush to Minnesota, where the Twin Cities’ current forecast calls for sunny weather but a high of just 42° F. Nor would I flee Winston-Salem, where the high on Friday is expected to be 63° F.

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

For one thing, jet-setting in search of the perfect Halloween city isn’t for me—nor for most people, I expect.

More importantly, the fact that one study ranks a city above or below others depends on the criteria. Yes, some things can be measured objectively. But the weight study authors give to different factors doesn’t necessarily reflect that I might value.

In this study, for example, the methodology assessed things such as weather forecast data, crime rates, percentage of the population under age 14, prices for Halloween party tickets and other entertainment, and even the number of candy stores per capita.

Certainly I would rank safety and the relative percentage of children as items that help make somewhere a good place to celebrate Halloween. Last-place Winston-Salem ranked 96th there, although 44th-place Scottsdale, Arizona, ranked 98th.

I also agree that weather is an important factor. Living in the Midwest, I often designed my kids’ costumes to allow plenty of room for them to wear warm jackets underneath. And a Halloween with torrential rain isn’t much fun for kids or the adults who take them around trick-or-treating.

In this year’s report, El Paso, Texas, tied with Las Vegas, Nevada, for first place weather-wise. Yet while El Paso ranked 22nd overall, Las Vegas placed 10th—even though the safety rank for Las Vegas was 76, compared to 29 for El Paso.

The reason: The study’s methodology gave Las Vegas a much higher “parties and activities” rank than it gave El Paso. But, duh! Las Vegas bills itself as a “parties and activities” destination. I wouldn’t want to take my kids trick-or-treating from casino to casino, though. Nor would I, as an adult, necessarily want to find myself in the middle of a huge costumed throng, trying to live up to the motto that what happens in Vegas stays there. Large parties and a vibrant bar scene are fine as far as they go. But I wouldn’t let them be a deciding factor in which city is “better” for celebrating Halloween than another city.

Other criteria in the methodology likewise seem irrelevant to me. The number of candy stores per capita? Sure, I’ve been in some superb confectionaries. Chatham Candy Manor on Cape Cod makes some amazing fudge, for example, and Malley’s is a venerable establishment in Cleveland. But for stuff to give trick-or-treaters, don’t most of us just head to the local supermarket for a name brand item?

The number of costume stores per capita seems irrelevant as well. The average person buying a costume may well spend more than $77 this year, and I understand the business can be a nice uptick for the local economy. But a costume store on every corner doesn’t make one city better than another for celebrating Halloween.

In short, the worth of any study depends on its methodology. And any survey combining and weighting different factors necessarily involves some value judgments on the part of the researchers.

WalletHub’s study is still interesting and worthwhile. As with any similar study, though, it’s important to look behind the rankings and dig deeper into the data.

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