Nov 3, 2009

Unmasking the truth beneath our costumes

by Clair Riss

I have always seen Halloween for what it really is: an excuse for people to live vicariously. From the time I was little, I was amazed to see how many adults participated in trick-or-treating with the excuse of “Well, someone has to take little Jimmy around the block, and I might as well dress up while I’m at it.”

Oh really? So is that why we spent 75 bucks on that Elvis costume, decorated our homes to look like the Amityville horror house and spent our week’s paycheck on candy?

Halloween itself is a costume of sorts. It transforms our normal, everyday selves into something vastly different than what people know us to be. We are free to be whoever we want, blow money and not get into trouble for it. Think about it: when else is it appropriate for a middle-aged man to walk around town dressed as John Travolta with his shirt unbuttoned to his navel?

As I think back over all of my Halloween memories, the only people who did not participate in the fantasy were my pastor, my dad (who thinks Halloween is every day of the year, based on his grocery list) and Ruthie down the street (who, after she had invited us to church, passed out wheat-y popcorn balls to trick-or-treaters every year). But those three were the exceptions.

Almost every single neighbor lady who passed out candy participated in the fantasy. I recall each mom decked out in her finest costume. And they always wore extremely long wigs, even if they did not match the costume, which I never understood. Also, moms who wear high heels to take their kids trick-or-treating are a dead giveaway.

And finally, my own mother. One year she wore black spandex with a tight black shirt and disguised herself by painting whiskers and a nose on her face. Even as an 11-year-old I could see through her facade.

But it wasn’t just moms. The people we suspected of being drug dealers two houses down were always adorned in their finest Marilyn Manson garb, complete with scary eye contacts, which, come to think of it, wasn’t too out of the ordinary. I never felt comfortable taking their powdered “fun dip” candy.

Then there is the 8-year-old neighbor (who is indeed a boy) dressed up as a Power Puff Girl last year. Two years ago he was decked out in a hula skirt. Is there something wrong with this picture? This is actually a common occurrence with him — he lives out his fantasy is year-round.

But maybe my observations are skewed. Maybe I came from a liberal town. Maybe in normal towns, parents just stay behind and pass out candy like good adults.

This raises the question, “When does a kid stop qualifying for trick-or-treating?” Well, I’m in college and I still trick-or-treat and — “Oh no!” — I’m living vicariously through Halloween.

For the past three years, I have been guilty of the fantasy I so strongly denounce. I’ve dressed as a skeleton (subconsciously wishing I was skinny), a pregnant woman (my secret desire is to be a mom) and a soccer player (I’ve always wanted to be on the college team). I’m living my fantasies out through Halloween.

I never understood the phenomenon, but I suppose most people do not usually see it coming. I judged all of those parents without realizing that it is just natural for them to want an opportunity to be their greatest dream for a night. I want to be a soccer player and I want to be a mom and those things just came out naturally through an excuse for expression.

Children, like my 8-year-old neighbor, can dress up as whatever they want whenever they want. But for the majority of society, our vicarious living is confined to one day of the year. No wonder we jump at the opportunity to be something beyond our restrained selves. There is a part of us that just never grows up, and it is stifled during adulthood.

I’ve always seen Halloween for what it really is: an excuse for people to live vicariously. And I’ve discovered that I’m guilty as well.

Contact Claire Riss at

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