I don’t really “do” Halloween, so I have no costume  to share with you – though if I did, it would probably be something  easily predictable and Mad Men-related. Instead, I went back to my blogging vault for something a little bit different. I wrote this piece exactly five years ago, on a now defunct blog (my very first), and seeing as how it’s about Halloween (though only very tangentially about Halloween “fashion”) I thought it might be an appropriate diversion for this time of year. Enjoy!
My first semester of university I heard the following anecdote from a classics professor (in an Intro to Greek Civilization class). It says something for the story that I still remember it so many years later, my memory for details of my undergraduate education being spotty to say the least. [At this point, I feel obliged to add a little caveat … I am a terrible anecdote-teller. But it goes something like this …] Many, many years from now, when the earth has been destroyed and all that’s left are rubble and ruins, an advanced alien race comes across the remains and decides to study its extinct civilization. The aliens study the ruins, many of them, of course, dwelling homes and buildings. At the end of an exhaustive period of study, the alien researchers publish their results. In their paper, they discuss the religious practices of the natives of earth. They note the ubiquitous presence of a certain artifact in nearly every type of dwelling place they encountered, which they conclude must have been a temple of the most significant deity on earth – a white, one-legged, oval-shaped, porcelain receptacle.

The point of the story, I believe, had something to do with the difficulty of studying ancient civilizations and the dangers of imposing a contemporary rationalization on what are, at best, ambiguous traces of an inscrutable past. This brings up an interesting point (and I think there is an interesting conversation to be had about the verisimilitude of history, and the way narratives shape the reality of the past), and it leads me – tangentially as always – to some timely observations.

Halloween is a strange time of the year. A time of year when a lot of people pretend to be someone else – adopt an alter-ego, a mask, a persona. Every year, the process seems more and more divorced from its purported origin (which is in itself a fascinating example of the evolution of customs and rituals – the same themes running through 2000 years’ worth of history, by way of Celtic rituals, Roman festivals, Christian appropriation, All Hallows Eve and all the rest of it). The twin principles of modern (pop) culture are prominently on display – sex having the edge over violence, most of the time anyway. Vampires and motley ghouls (now sexed-up and pleather-clad) are still the old stand-bys, but more and more, costumes reflect the Zeitgeist – the retro-mad, media-addicted, disaffected, desensitized jeunesse doré of this brave new world.

Halloween is a mine of research possibilities. I can only imagine what a latter-day cultural anthropologist might make of the seemingly bacchanalian festivities at any of the several dozen bars and night clubs in my little metropolis, if the city suddenly became the site of a Pompeian catastrophe on the Halloween weekend – pirates consorting with mermaids, angels fraternizing with their fallen counterparts, a whole microcosm of improbable encounters frozen in an everlasting contortion fueled by cheap drink specials and the pedestrian rhythms of Top 40 hits. What is interesting is the need to have a night like Halloween, a moment when inhibitions are communally loosened (if ever so slightly) under the shielding guise of an adopted persona. I suppose it might be said there are other examples of this; the various Carnivales around the world for one. Yet Halloween seems different, a reflection perhaps of the culture in which it exists. That it is crassly commercial is a given … there are few public celebrations that aren’t. But it also has a split personality – a strange juxtaposition of children’s diversion and adult entertainment, where the violent undercurrent is not entirely absent in the former. This might be nothing more than a ploy to expand the consumer base. It might also be an illustration of the indistinct boundary between childhood and adulthood, and the nature of the collective unconscious; children and adults alike choosing, on some subconscious level, to personify the same universal archetypes – hero, villain, trickster, warrior. At the simplest, pop psychology level, it is a moment in which rigidly-enforced roles are set aside, when sights that would normally cause a stir – hairy men bursting out of nurses’ uniforms, walking toilet-humour jokes, bikini-clad girls on the street in reinforced-thermal-mittens weather – don’t raise an eyebrow, a moment of reciprocal fantasy, when I pretend that you’re a dashing Jedi, and you can call me Alice.

Of course, nothing can explain the baffling popularity of 80s-Madonna-inspired outfits, which missed “frightening” by a (teased) hair and by-passed “ironic” entirely on the way to “laughable”. But some mysteries remain forever veiled in spandex.

Halloween: sex and candy. Enjoy!

1 Comment on The night of the id

  1. Hmmmm…interesting. Rather more scholarly than your usual stuff on this blog. But interesting nonetheless.

    I don’t really do Hallowe’en either. (Other than eating candy!) It’s really more for kids, and I disapprove of all the sexy costumes out there. There’s just no choice if you don’t want to look overtly sexy for Hallowe’en!