Halloween rituals have always fascinated me. Psychologically, the custom of dressing up in costumes asks (and answers) many questions. The religious and mystical foundations supposedly stem from the ancient belief that if you disguise yourself on this special night, a confused grim reaper will pass you by. Fun stuff! But, for anybody who has ventured out on Halloween night, it’s obvious that the ‘high holy days’ of masquerade have most certainly taken on a life of their own.
Why do we love to dress up as somebody we aren’t? This practice not only seems to hold a dark attraction for the person disguising him- or herself, but also tends to produce discomfort in those they encounter. More than just a tradition, the art of disguise touches all of us in a deeply personal way.
It may be that masquerade is a form of art or theatre—in which we lowly amateurs can take part. Like theater, it’s a chance to dramatize the experience of being someone else. It brings imagination—the way you enjoy watching a play or a movie—to the forefront of your own experience in an active, rather than passive way. This is the drama of Halloween and disguise in general.
John Suler, psychology professor at Rider University in New Jersey, researched the nature of costume choice. He asked students to pick costumes for each other, and found that most picked costumes that were the opposite of their peers’ expressed personalities. Says Suler, “They give a quiet person a costume that is exhibitionistic and flamboyant. One theory states that our personality operates in polarities. There is our conscious self that we present to everyone during our everyday life, but then there is a hidden side to our personality that may be the exact opposite.”
Let’s say it was a different kind of study. Perhaps students were asked to guess the career choice of someone they didn’t know. They would probably make a guess based on certain physical or behavioral attributes that seem to match the career choice. For example, a studious and bookish person might be selected as a librarian or a professor rather than an army sergeant. Yet when it comes to costume, people tend to go in the opposite direction. If the peer’s personality is quiet and retiring, he’s given a flashy costume, suggesting that a purpose of costumes and disguise is, indeed, to be different from whom you normally are.
Another function of disguise is to either emulate or mock a person or a principle—to give concrete expression to your opinions. By dressing up as someone you like or hate, say a public figure, you can tell people how you really feel about something. If you go to a costume party, you’re sure to see costume versions of people in the news, usually the subject of mockery and put-down by the person wearing the costume. And if you watch children at a costume party or when they trick or treat, you’ll find plenty of superhero costumes. Isn’t it interesting how children tend to want to look up, while adults more often seek to satirize or put down? Now there’s a subject for another column!
Of course, children reach over to the ‘dark side’ as well. Many love to dress up—or see others dressed up—as witches; suggesting a fascination with evil as well as good. However, San Francisco professor of psychology Stanley Krippner says that witches may be the most psychologically healthy of all the Halloween characters. Witches are seen as sinister characters who cast spells in the Middle Ages, but Dr. Krippner thinks their bad reputation is undeserved. “In the Middle Ages, some of the witches were probably emotionally disturbed,” he says. “But in my opinion, most of them were not. They were very good herbalists and midwives. Some of them were surgeons.’ His theory seems to be supported in pop culture by the sympathetic treatment of Elphaba, the ‘Wicked Witch of the West,’ in the popular Broadway musical ‘Wicked.’
The Greek philosopher Aristotle attributed the origin of art to the human affinity for imitation, concluding that it is natural for humans to “delight in works of imitation.” From childhood, imitation is the primary method of learning, and this is what theatre and art are all about: imitation and recreation. It’s also the specific purpose for putting on a costume, whether you’re a child on Halloween, an adult at a costume party, or an actor.
It seems to follow that Halloween—and costumes in general—allow the average person to bring dramatic expression into his everyday life. Even deeper than that, it provides an opportunity to express aspects of personality that might otherwise remain dormant. We watch a movie or a play to experience a different aspect of life (good, bad or indifferent) that can give us more insight. When we dress up, we have the chance to ‘act out’ parts of ourselves that we normally keep private. Though the rituals of Halloween may have developed in an age more preoccupied with superstition and uncertainty, the emotional tug to ‘be someone else’ stays with us not only as children, but adults as well. Think about that when you select next year’s costume.