Looking back at my childhood, Halloween was the first adventure to impress itself upon my memory. I lived in Dublin, Ireland, where Halloween was a night for children to fearlessly take to the streets unchaperoned, dressed in fantastical disguises to procure sweets, apples and peanuts from neighbors with the threat of ‘trick or treat.’ While most people complied with the warning and proffered treats, stink bombs were known to be dropped in the letterboxes and rotten eggs smashed on the windowpanes of those who did not deliver.
Halloween was a major highlight of my year. Dressing up in a costume allowed me to explore another role outside my childhood identity, if only for a few precious hours. In those days we didn’t buy ready made costumes-at most an accessory or two. Mostly we delved into our imaginations and our resources at home to concoct our disguises-a sheet with well-placed holes turned you into a ghost, and a tea towel on your head with an oversized dressing gown into an Arabian king.
Each year my siblings and I would invent new personalities for ourselves. By the age of seven my five year old sister and I braved the streets alone; the night quivered with magic. We knocked on doors and amassed enough sweets to make our jaws drop in wonderment. Most importantly we witnessed the neighborhood come alive with costumes and candlelit pumpkins with faces flickering with flames. Jack’o’lanterns beckoned as beacons of magic identifying houses hospitable to ghouls, tricksters, aliens, fairies and creatures from the dead.
Those nights were my first taste of how a costume can alter a persona. Part of the tradition was a towering bonfire lit in the communal greenspace. It was colossal, capable of consuming the mind with imposing tongues that demanded a respectful distance. At every turn children swarmed in costumes, amateur fireworks lit up the sky and “screamers” howled into the night like tortured ghosts. Everything was exciting and unreal. Our mundane neighborhood became the set for unregulated ritual, a fiery hub for the mystery and enchantment of the night of the dead. No explanation for any of this was ever given to me as a child. Why we performed these rituals one night every year apparently needed no clarification, it was just what we did.
Later I learnt that the whole community was enacting a ritual passed down from Celtic paganism-mildly ironic given the Christian backdrop. Our ancestors celebrated Halloween as Samhain, one of the eight major occasions of importance in their calendar that mirrored the cycles of nature. Halloween was considered the turning of the New Year-an occasion when the veil between the living and the dead was thinnest. The spiritual function of the feast was to commune with one’s ancestors, and greet the dead at the juncture of one year and the next. Costumes served as ceremonial tools.
Nowadays communing with the dead is considered a bizarre, fringe practice. Death is not a mainstream conversation topic. Whether we realize it or not, the predominance of spooky, scary costumes on Halloween harks back to the ancient tradition of honoring buried ancestors. In our costumed revelry, as ghosts, zombies and banshees, we are pantomiming our inherent connection with the dead, embodying the disembodied for one another. The Halloween of today is a vestige of this age-old magical ritual; one I hope will continue to haunt our culture.
Far across the sea from its European inception, Halloween has been lovingly embraced by Americans. It’s becoming an increasingly popular festivity and it’s not surprising why. By legitimizing the wearing of costumes Halloween endorses roleplay. It provides the forum for being someone other than yourself. In effect Halloween has become our Carnival-it’s no longer just about the dead-it’s an event that sanctions masquerade.
In New York a classic tradition is to participate in the Halloween Parade. Boasting hundreds of thousands of participants, it’s open to anyone willing to dress up and join in. Thanks to the fact that I consort with other costume-lovers, I was invited aboard the float of the Kostume Kult, a group that celebrates masquerade all year long. Our float was a mobile party with great DJs bouncing up 6th Avenue, show-casing the weird and the wonderful.
The day of the parade I changed into my “zombie showgirl” outfit in the back room of my office. Just like when I was a girl, my costume had been assembled over time. Gradually I’d accrued and created the components in blind preparation for an occasion as grand as Halloween. If it hadn’t been for fake blood dripping from my mouth, puncture marks on my neck, and sunken black eyes, I might have just stepped off a Vegas stage. My outfit encompassed a huge bustled skirt that jutted out a foot behind me in torrents of baby pink tulle. The front was short enough to showcase shimmery hot pants, fishnet stockings and furry purple high heel boots. On top I wore a pink feather bra and nothing else. The finishing touch was a regal golden headpiece with a cluster of tall black feathers erupting from the crown. I was quite a sight, no longer Jena la Flamme but a zombie showgirl risen from her grave.
I left my office building in full regalia and met up with my friend King Ramses on the street corner. We walked over to meet Rapunzel at her apartment. She had a long wig and was planning to wear a long, conservative dress with bricks painted on it like a tower. Under the influence of King Ramses and I, she changed her mind and went back to her costume trunk. Re-inspired, she painted herself white, with blackened eyes and ribbons of blood dripping from her mouth and neck. She donned a tantalizing semi-translucent night-gown over white lingerie, embodying, in her own words, “a dead bride on her wedding night.”
“What if someone from work sees me?” she said with true concern in her voice. “I’d be fired from my firm!”
“No one would ever recognize you,” Ramsses and I assured her and it was no lie. As much as she looked outrageously sexy, with the wig and makeup she was utterly unrecognizable.
The spirits of the ancestors were obviously pleased with our ceremony because we were blessed with exquisitely mild weather. An uncharacteristic warm breeze caressed our bodies as we danced and paraded from SoHo to 14th St. Every character imaginable mingled together in this reclamation of creativity. The mood was ecstatic and inspirational. Our costumes, our creative outlets, dazzled each other and gave us the sweet relief and freedom of inhabiting someone other than our usual selves.
“Costume sits at the intersection of art, fashion and theater allowing participants to experiment in all three artistic genres,” Jim Glaser, the leader of the Kostume Kult later told me. In effect, wearing costumes functions as a non-alcoholic social lubricant, endowing people with more confidence, as well as something to spark conversation and forge connection through. It empowers your imagination, takes you on a journey, entices, encourages and forces you to be more artistic. When people realize the fun they can access by partying in costume they are compelled to tease the threads of their inventive impulses again and again, thus ushering them into a lifestyle of creativity.
In essence, we wear masks everyday, masks so engrained we forget they are on. Halloween makes our masquerade intentional and teaches us how to consciously craft our personality traits. Dressing in a costume-be it demonic, futuristic, furry, comical or simply bizarre-expands the bounds of our creative expression and allows us to reveal hidden aspects of ourselves, so that when life calls upon us to put on a new face, we are confident and fully prepared.