The Psychology of Disguise

It’s a rare Halloween season where I don’t get a few inquiries about the psychology of costumes and disguise. The 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. That notwithstanding, it’s obvious that the high holy days of masquerade have most certainly taken on a life of their own.

Dressing up not only holds a dark attraction for the person disguising him- or herself, but also tends to create discomfort in those they encounter. It may be that masquerade is a form of theatre in which we lowly amateurs can act as someone else. It brings imagination to your own experience in an active 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 choices depicted 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.” So if somebody’s personality is quiet and retiring, he’s given a flashy costume, suggesting that a purpose of masquerade is to be different from whom he normally is.

Another function of disguise is to emulate or mock a person or a principle and give concrete expression to your opinions. By dressing up as someone you like or hate, you can tell people how you really feel about something. If you go to a Halloween party, you’re sure to see costume versions of people in the news, usually the subject of mockery 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 look up, while adults more often seek to satirize or put down? We’ll leave that one for another column.

Of course, children reach over to the dark side too. Many love to dress up as witches or various and sundry goblins, 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 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 still 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 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 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 a time 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 this year’s costume.