By S.A. Kehr
On this auspicious occasion with all hallows eve a mere heartbeat away I wish to discuss that most curious cultural practice of “dressing up”. Why do we don clothes and makeup so different from our usual attire? Surely in our adult lives we can choose to wear any style we might see fit and, if these clothes were so much more fun to wear, we would simply wear them all year long. Even accounting for social norms and mores, we might well choose to wear such costumes in the privacy of our own homes and yet it is very rare that we costume ourselves except for this particular celebration. For these reasons I dismiss the notion that the wearing of costumes is fun on its own merit or really much different at all from any other style of dress. So what then can explain our overwhelming enthusiasm for the practice? To answer this I will need to step back in time and consider the ancient practices surrounding costume dress in earlier societies.
Let us start with dress as a form of honorific. In many cultures, dress signified the individual’s place in the social hierarchy; the most elaborate forms of dress being reserved for the most important roles. The most important roles were positions of great authority and responsibility to the well being of the community. The role of the soldier being somewhat decorated in increasing increment to the veteran status of the individual and often including trophies of past victories. We, of course, see this practice reflected in the awarding of medals and other signifying adornments. In our history these would have often been gruesome or frightening because the soldier was the keeper of death. In several ways the work of the soldier was about death; the death of the other and martial skill, the ward against our own death and the fear that accompanies it, the designated person who will interact with death so we don’t have to. These roles made trophies that spoke to our fear of death desirable. A soldier who was intimidating because of his adornment would have been more effective at keeping danger away. Similarly, the soldier would be a better stand in for our interactions with death, both our fear of it and an emissary to it.
These connections make the case for a deep association between dress and status, and we would see similar types of practices around other roles of authority, but it is the dress of shaman that I think will best lead us to understand costumes. Specifically, it is the practice of ceremonial masks that decodes this mystery. In spiritual practices of older civilizations, it was common for the shaman to interact with spirits as representations of the forces of the world around us. An important part of this practice was the mask which symbolized transformation into a denizen of the spirit realm. In some instances, it concealed the humanity of the wearer allowing them to interact with the spirits unmolested and in others, it was the image of a particular spirit allowing the practitioner to become a vessel for that spirit’s interactions. Having been possessed* the practitioner would then allow the spirit to deliver messages, deliver blessing or curses, or even revel in the pleasures of humanity. This is the practice that I believe suffuses the modern Halloween celebration, not because of any genuine belief in either the act of possession or the spirits it is attributed to, but instead it is the psychology of human beings. Our minds have the flexibility to extend outside ourselves and become someone else.
We are most familiar with this in the form of empathy, wherein we take on the role of another person and feel their pain. But we also live vicariously through them and experience triumph or joy. We do this with narrative as well, allowing us to be transported into books, movies, TV, or even music. So strong is this capability that we are manipulated by it, as in the case of action heroes who don’t emote much allowing us to become the person in the story, what psychologists have termed the Neutral mask, or when advertisers make us uncomfortable for the “characters”** in some unpleasant situation so that we feel compelled to buy their brand of toilet paper or antiperspirant. We should be unsurprised at this capability to become another, since we do it many times a day but we rarely speak of it. Indeed, we ignore it, treating it like those creatures of legend who we dare not speak the names of. It is fundamental to our very humanity to the extent that its lack makes one an object of fear themselves: Psychopaths.
We can not abide a person who lacks this ability because without it there can be no human connection making the psychopath’s actions unpredictable. But if, as I have suggested here, the experience of becoming another is so fundamental to our humanity then why don’t we speak of it more broadly? The answer is fear! That same fear that gripped the western world in the middle ages, the fear that if we are so open to the influence of the world around us that this opens us also to the darkness, possession by demons. What is a demon in terms of the phenomenon I am describing? If the spirits of ancient practice represented the forces of nature that played so heavily on our lives, then the demon is the incarnation of the evil we find in ourselves lurking below the tranquil surface of our minds. If we are open to such possession, then surely we are only a stones throw from being possessed by something we find repugnant. This is the reason we are afraid to speak openly about this basic human behavior; because we can not be sure we will not be led into the darkness we know all too well is there by some unscrupulous figure. We fear the manipulator more than any other kind of tormentor because we can’t predict it.
Now we have a theory to explain the phenomena of dress and costume’s impact on us, but we must still ask why such a reverent act would be taken so lightly if we still ascribe it such power. Let us first look at the traditional practices of Halloween itself. In its early religious context, all hallows eve was the day on which the gates of the underworld were flung open and the dead and their tormentors alike were free to walk the earth, making this a time of celebration and great fear. While it might be great to get a visit from grandma after her passing, it would also be an opportunity for demons and the like to torment us. In order to hide from these malicious spirits we wore masks so we could conceal ourselves, but with the cloak of anonymity came the opportunity to act out the darkness that lurked within. This behavior was not unknown to us, as it played itself out in the form of masquerades where attendees regularly wore masks depicting devilish faces and acted in ways they felt restricted from in their public lives. In some sense, with their identities concealed the participants took on the roles of the spirits who’s masks they wore. And so to is it for us on this holiday we change our outward appearance to signify our transformation into the character we have chosen. We do this secretly and while we don’t claim to be that character, by and large, we do adjust our attitude and expectation of others. Our mythology has changed, and our costumes have kept pace with it. but the essence of “dressing up” has not.
We see this reflected in our modern hero myths around superheroes who don a mask and outfit to become something other than they were before. We see this clearly as it regards Batman: Bruce Wayne dresses in a mask to shield his identity but also to become the bat, a kind of totem for the work he does. In the process, he becomes a different person in many regards. It has been argued that in some sense this is reversed, as Bruce Wayne is more fiction than reality in this story suggesting that the crime fighter persona has more claim to that person than the socially acceptable playboy. Yet, either way, it shows us the transitional figure using the mask as a form of transformation. It is by transforming into the hero that the flawed and limited person under the mask can become the ideal, and so, too, do we seek to embody an ideal as cast among the characters of our modern age.
So what, then, explains the many costumes portraying non characters? What of the human-sized bananas and cardboard box robots who seem to embody nothing but at best a pun and at worst a cheap attempt to fit in? Many of these echo invoking the jester or clown. One is dressed both literally as the object or pun, but also wears a kind of meta costume of a fool dressed in this way evoking the platonic ideal of humor. But we have not yet reached a clean taxonomy as there are still the cheap or hastily constructed to be dealt with. These can be divided into the genuine and the satirical. Genuinely cheap or simplistic costumes may indicate that one is not easily moved into the possessed state by way of costumed dress. I should note here that I do not associate difficulty entering this state in this way with psychopathy; indeed, one may be highly empathetic but find other forms of attachment more efficacious. While there does seem to be some correlation between those who enter this state most easily and those who find dress up most appealing, this is by no means a good test for ones empathic capabilities. The second form is the satirically bad costume. This is best exemplified by the T-shirt reading check one I am a: Hobo, Ghost, etc. but was also well voiced by Wednesday Adams when asked where her costume was “This is my costume. I’m a homicidal maniac. They look just like everybody else.” Here we see the very notion of dressing up turned on its head to ask what a costume is and if one’s “normal” appearance might not be as much costume as any silly or evocative form of dress.
This leads me to one last point of interest: Cosplay. A culture born from fandoms and love for the characters of particular media, Cosplay has come to dominate conventions and movie premiers, though it should be noticed that cosplay has started to work its way out to all manner of events. What strikes me as most interesting about this form of dress up is that it takes the power of possession away from the highly ritualized events of Halloween and masquerade and carries it into the world as a kind of personal totem that can follow the participant. Those who participate are, in some sense, using the likeness of a character to not only express the selves they are but the selves they wish to be. Elements of the cherished character are made a part of the cosplayer, be that guile, strength, or confidence. By doing so, the participant is granted leave to act in ways that grant personal fulfillment. In a brave new world where we each have the power to adopt those parts into our evolving self, we may face new dangers in opening ourselves this way. But so, too, can we become the designers of our inner self. Cosplay may be the first outward signifying act of a new kind of inner rebellion against the tyranny of our own limitations.