On the Halloween expeditions of my youth, my allegiance was first to candy collection and second to the festivity of the holiday itself. I was (and still am, unfortunately) quite easily spooked, which tended to render me the least brave of the cohort with which I trick-or-treated. I would huddle sheepishly behind my companions as we ventured across front lawns entangled in caution tape and decorative tombstones, flinching a little as I searched for Babe Ruth candy bars at my neighbors’ doorsteps while decorative plastic spiders tracked me with their many eyes. My sole haunted hayride experience was tragic, to say the least; I was staunchly perplexed as to why chainsaws and children should ever be juxtaposed in the name of “good old fun.”
What piqued my interest far more about Halloween was the costuming aspect. (I viewed costumes and candy on roughly equivalent planes of importance.) In the interest of transparency, I had some sick Halloween getups as a youngster — a jellyfish, an octopus, a rabbit. My personal favorite is the time I dressed up as a chocolate-frosted donut, in which I hung an inflatable pool tube on a string around my neck, spray-painted it a deep brown, and hot glued colorful plastic straw pieces to look like sprinkles. (I have chosen to repress the year I dressed up as Michael Jackson during a peculiar fourth-grade obsession with his entire discography.)
The point I’m trying to convey here is that these were not your ordinary costumes. They were not witches or black cats or outfits made to look like the protagonist of whichever children’s movie had topped the charts that summer. I was very lucky to have the resources and the family support to make many of these costumes at home, and knowing that my Halloween garb would be wholly unique from that of my peers always made me feel a twinge of anticipation.
It wasn’t that I was particularly intrigued by fashion or had some sharp artistic skill, either. (Actually, just the opposite — I wore neon tracksuits and tie-dye t-shirts every day for the first ten years of my life.) Yet there was something about this opportunity to slip into a new state of being, to exert pressure on the boundaries of who I could be, that continued to allure me as I crafted my costumes each year.
Halloween festivities date back to an age-old Celtic tradition, called Samhain, meant to close out the harvest season and usher in the most treacherous period of the year, often marred by the loss of human life: winter. This transition from bounty to desolation was not only a material matter, but also a markedly spiritual one. The spirits of the dead would be liberated from their confinement in another world and be able to reenter the realm of the living. Massive bonfires and animal sacrifices were commonplace at these celebrations, in which the Celts hoped to lock in good favor with their deities for the perilous season ahead.
Upon the infiltration of the Roman Empire into Celtic lands, Nov. 1 became “All Saints’ Day” or “All-Hallows,” a day to commemorate the piety and selflessness of martyrs and saints. Reluctant to cave to the Church’s establishment of “All Souls’ Day” on Nov. 2 as a more subdued version of the original Samhain jubilee, inhabitants of the once-Celtic areas continued to uninhibitedly honor their Oct. 31 tradition, which soon gained the name “All-Hallows’ Eve” — or, more expressly, Halloween.
What does a seasonal festival have to do with dressing up in ridiculous costumes, then? The Celts feared that stepping foot beyond their homes on Halloween night would mean meeting ghosts. To evade being taken for mere humans and instead blend in with the spirits, they obscured their faces with strange masks and donned costumes.
In the thousands of years since the fall of ancient empires — and even since the close of my trick-or-treating missions — Halloween has been commercialized to an even more extreme extent. Yearly spending on the holiday in the United States alone has climbed to $6 billion, standing second only to Christmas on this metric.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us pouring money into our costumes aren’t doing so because we feel compelled to ward off potentially malevolent spirits. We do it to take blurry disposable pictures with our friends, to make others’ laugh with our off-kilter embodiments of pop culture staples and to introduce an element of unpredictability into our routine of wearing the same black tank top out every weekend. More profoundly, though, Halloween prompts us to tap into something that lies much deeper in our consciousness, something tied to an inherent desire to be flexible in our definitions of who we are. Halloween is, at its core, a celebration of malleability and a testament to the joy of recharacterization, imagination and exploration.
This year, then, as you’re tearing up the dance floor to the punctuated cadence of the “Monster Mash” or eating your fill in Reese’s pumpkins, as I’ll certainly be doing, allow your mind to reminisce in the celebration’s original purpose. No, not an opportunity to let loose before half of your village succumbs to hypothermia, but rather a chance to relish the extent of what you can become — even if only for a fleeting moment.
Megan Pontin is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected] Rewind runs alternate Tuesdays.