I have always known Halloween was special to me, known it in my bones. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, the new year, the change from a time of harvest and plenty to the dark and careful winter when the livestock are drawn close and the year’s dead move on to the afterlife; is it any wonder being Irish is to die of a broken heart?
Of course the Christians had to move in and change it all, co-opt it, steal it. If the Romans hadn’t been such good soldiers, such clever occupiers, the Druids might have continued the traditions without the annoyance of All Saints’ Day, then All Souls Day, then All Hallowed Eve. I take a delicious pleasure in the Sexy Nurse costumes, but not as you might expect… it’s secular revenge on Catholic usurpation that makes me giggle on October 31.
So Samhain used to be one of four huge Celtic holidays, and then it became a minor Christian affair, and by the time I was a child some 2200 years into it, Americans had brutalized and adapted it as we do most things into a $6 billion commercial enterprise, and if you’re saddened by that don’t finish this sentence because I’m here to tell you that the arbitrary date chosen for Christ’s birth just to co-opt more pagan festivals is worth $135 billion. Hey, it’s what we do.
When you’re a kid, of course, you don’t care much about any of that. Maybe it’s the free candy you manage to make last until April, maybe it’s just the chance to be something you’re not, maybe it’s your Celtic DNA tingling, but you know it’s special.
In the American tradition, kids put on costumes. They don’t really know about trying to fool spirits on their way to the afterlife, any more than they know that bats are part of things because they were attracted to the insects attracted to the bonfires the ancient people lit to light the way. The kids get dressed depending on how old they are.
It all starts before you can remember. Your parents dress you at first, trying to out-cute the other parents. You end up as a bumblebee, or a teddy bear, and you don’t care because you’re still pooping your pants. After a couple of years, your parents still dress you, but now they’re worried that you’re paying attention, so they dress you as their future pride. This is where Sexy Nurse costumes can get disturbing, but mostly we see four-year-old doctors, priests, sports stars, lawyers.
And then we’re old enough to respond to stimuli, and whine about them. We go to school and discover peers and social pressures, and the cheap plastic masks and thin plastic costumes that will make us part of the group. You can often guess a person’s age by asking what their Halloween costume was when they were six or seven.
Something magical happens next, as third graders reject their parents’ expectations and their peers’ low-denominator strivings. The imagination hasn’t lined up with the capabilities yet, but the child is imagining their dreams, and combining ballerinas with astronauts, cowboys with secret agents, dinosaurs with helicopters. The cheap costumes aren’t worthy, because they are ordinary.
That’s really the gateway to High Concept, which is the zenith of Halloween costuming. I remember not being content to be a Groucho Marx caveman… at eleven I had to stay home and greet the smaller kids at my door, not prowl the neighborhood like a child. I went beyond self, I decorated the yard, I begged for dry ice, I chose the candy. In my neighborhood, maybe ten kids showed up, and the spell was temporarily broken for me.
But for other kids, it’s a slower slide. Once you’re out of the High Concept period you’re a preteen, and your main effort is to avoid embarrassment and pretend not to be excited. Then it’s a short step to Minimal Effort to Achieve Reward, when you might as well se the world as a giant box being operated by BF Skinner. Maybe then you get a part-time job and realize you can have candy whenever you want, so you take a couple of years off.
Then you develop friends, and they want to drink, and all of you think you’d like to maybe do sex or something. At that point, costumes become an exercise in cleverness, especially if you’re awkward and not all that attractive. Because when you’re disguised, cleverness might be enough to get you laid. Sex isn’t really discussed as an element in Samhain, but these are Celts we’re talking about, and they used to charge into battle naked and greet each other by sucking a nipple.
I have always told the story of losing my virginity at 19, in a one-off episode to a crazy chick in a dorm room. But the truth is, she was undressed as a ghost with smeared makeup in an apartment in East Oakland, and I was 17 and begged her to let me, even for just a minute. I had to do it, had to be free of the distraction, had to get my mind back. “Why do you want to play with fire?” she asked as she sat on me. I convinced myself for years that the episode didn’t count. I have no idea what that girl looked like, or what her name was.
Many years later I took a job where Halloween was the single biggest moneymaker of the year. I was responsible for decorating ten acres of space, the ultimate High Concept recapture of my childhood. My budget was inadequate. I spent my own money to get close to doing it right. My supervisor yelled at me for going over budget and dropped a handwritten note in my file. This was part of the basis for me being denied a better job seven years later. Funny, I’ve been fucked over Halloween in more ways than one.
I was in New York in October 2009 and had to choose between two women. One was an online advice columnist for people who own hedgehogs. She had no other job. She had several pets, including two hedgehogs. We had been dating about two months, and Halloween was approaching. I asked her what her plans were. She told me about a party in the East Village, and how every year she dresses for Halloween and would do so again. Her stock rose. I asked her what she would wear, and she said “a hedgehog” adding “just like every year!”
I broke up with her. I went to a bar in Alphabet City on Halloween and one of two Freddy Kreugers asked me what I was dressed as. “Irony,” I said.
When I have kids, I’ll teach them about Halloween. They’ll be depressed and scared, and they’ll wonder why they can’t enjoy their candy, but they will be righteous.