Lady Gaga, Disney princess, Spiderman, Snooki? We’ve come a long way from the original notion of Halloween costumes. In ancient Celtic tradition, the end of October marked the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter, a time of paucity and death–and the one day of the year when it was believed that spirits could return to the physical world. To avoid being recognized by roaming ghosts, people donned masks upon leaving their homes after dark in the hope that the specters would mistake them for fellow spirits. Just imagine, no indoor plumbing, no Internet, and the real live fear of rambling phantoms…
Nowadays, people are clearly not dressing up like Michael Jackson to fool the ghost of said pop star on October 31st, so why do people choose the costumes they do? In many old European celebrations serfs dressed up as kings, queens, gods and monsters–an inverted power structure of sorts. Some selections may still be about power, or superpowers as the case may be, but our costume choices say a number of other things about us as well.
Laura Lica at the Seattle Post Intelligence Reporter writes that, “our costume choices are not random, even if we think so. And although you might think your mask hides you, it’s not entirely true. Although price, comfort and convenience can factor in, when you choose a costume, you live a fantasy and you show the others a part of your inner self.”
Sally Foster, a psychology professor with the University of Miracosta, Calif., notes that Halloween is an occasion for people to either dress up as someone they love or would emulate or someone they disdain and therefore want to mock. John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University has looked at similar themes. From the article by Lica, here is a summary of what the two experts think your Halloween costume might be saying about you.
Costume choices rooted in fame and popular culture tend to follow trends, and like trends, they may spread quickly then disappear, Suler said. People may simply wish to display a knowledge of current events or share their interests. Or they may use them to express personality traits or social issues that are associated with the celebrity’s image (sensuality, intelligence, power, corruption, rebellion, etc.).
“I think this is a likely choice for the Walter Mittys of the world to be someone more dashing and daring, someone with real power,” Foster said.
Generally, animals represent strength, basic instincts, with other specific traits for specific creatures, Foster said. For instance, cats are sensual, purring, soft creatures.
“I saw two women dressed as cats even though in real life they’re very reserved persons and do not display their sensuality,” Foster said.
Because animals symbolize certain traits or attributes in myth as well as popular culture (such as strength, loyalty, grace, independence, cunning, transcendence), an animal costume may represent some real aspect of a person’s identity, or some admired characteristic, Suler said.
Thinking in the tradition of the Native American, he added, we might even regard an animal costume as being an individual’s totem — a symbol of one’s essential nature or potential.
French maids, hot nurses or strumpets can represent one’s own repressed sexuality, Foster said. They also can be healthy expressions of someone who is not very repressed.
Suler said the increasingly popular “pimp and prostitute” characters represent inner struggles.
“Should we be pure and chaste and holy … or let loose with sexual desires and acting out? In those costumes you see these inner struggles (again, a polarity) being expressed.”
Fairies or princesses represent one’s lost innocence or beauty, or a return to a safer and simpler time, Foster said.
This can be a variation of the “evil” costume, or a more benign expression of a fantasy of omnipotence, Suler said. They also can express underlying feelings of helplessness and insecurity.
Zombies, vampires, skeletons and other monsters show our fascination with the macabre, the grotesque. Death has always been something we humans are scared of, yet drawn to, Foster said.
Evil costumes allow people to safely — and even creatively — express their dark side without guilt, Suler said.
He adds that some people may use evil or aggressive costumes as a way (consciously or unconsciously) to alienate others, which indicate anxiety about intimacy and being vulnerable.
Clowns and the like represent whimsy, playfulness and youth, Foster said. People want to leave their serious natures behind on this holiday.
Some cartoon characters have very cultural significance and may even represent archetypal personality types (for example Bugs Bunny as a confident trickster), according to Suler. And some adults wear more sophisticated cartoons, such as anime. The psychological tone of these costumes tend to be more seductive, whimsical or mysterious.
Does this ring true? What are you dressing up as this year? What do you think it says about you?