The Psychology of Disguise (Delaware Coast Press)

The high holy days of masquerade are upon us, and rarely does a Halloween go by without my getting a few inquiries about the psychology of costumes and disguise. Ancient mystical beliefs held that if you disguised yourself on All Hallows Eve, a confused Grim Reaper would pass you by. That notwithstanding, it’s obvious that Halloween dress-up has taken on a life of its own.

Disguise not only holds a dark attraction for the persons concealing themselves, but it also tends to create discomfort in those they encounter. The drama of Halloween may be that masquerade is a form of theatre in which we amateurs can act as someone else; bringing imagination to our experience in an active way.

John Suler, psychology professor at Rider University in New Jersey, researched the nature of costume choice by asking students to pick costumes for each other. He 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 during our everyday life, but then there is a hidden side 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 by giving concrete expression to your opinions. By dressing up as someone you like or hate, you can tell people how you really feel about something. During this week, you’re sure to see costume versions of people in the news, usually the subject of mockery by the person wearing the costume. Interestingly, youthful trick-or-treaters or children at a costume party seem to favor superheroes. Why do kids tend to look up, while adults more often seek to satirize or put down? We’ll leave that for another column.

Of course, kids 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’s 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 costumes 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 as adults as well. Think about that when you select this year’s costume.