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About Face

1 November, 2012 (12:05) | Social Commentary

The 2011 line-up of carved pumpkins from the Sushi & Pumpkins Party.

They come in all shapes and sizes: princes and princesses; ghouls, goblins, and ghosts; witches, wizards, and warlocks. They arrive in droves, wave after wave washing over laws and up stoops, doorbells buzzing frantically in sugar-coated want. They appear in pairs, trios, alone or with an entourage. They’re hawkishly watched by shadowy figures hovering close like a bodyguard or distantly on the sidewalk like evil overlords.

For the few twilight hours when costumed children rule the streets, as teens and youthful adults preen and primp in preparation for the coming nightfall, and as adults carefully dole out treats, smiling and praising all comers, Halloween follows its perfect little script. But outside those hours strange things happen.

I often feel privileged to work with kids, especially at schools. Halloween, though, is a strange and careful balance of organized madness. At one elementary school, the principal disallowed costumes during class time, but allowed them for late day parties, meaning all prep must be possible on site. At a middle school, costumes are a free-for-all, but masks and fake weapons are simply not allowed. Why these rules and regulations are in place seem cut and dry: respect, attention, and learning still take precedence in school, and the weeklong sugar high hangover can be equally detrimental.

There’s something different about these everyday interactions in costume from the rote and blasé joy of Halloween; despite the costumes and the excitement, the candy and treats, the parties and carousal, things are surprisingly normal. Kids don’t stay in character as they answer questions in class; they don’t leap from their seats, capes flapping and rush out the door to serve justice; nor do they feast on the brains of their deskmates as tests are being taken. Indeed, there’s an even stranger sense of normalcy that hovers over the day’s events, the seeps from between the seams of masks and cloaks an prevents Halloween from truly taking over a day in the same way that other holidays sometimes can.

School children are not the only ones with a template to follow. Teens rage against the machine, fighting their own urge to dress up, childlike and giddy, and their need to be seen as too old for such youthful pageantry  The older kids stock up on drinks and food, dancing and playing deep into the night, their costumes commentary on the world around them. College students clad themselves cleverly, scantily, and dive into excuses for excess. Twenty-somethings search packed rooms full of inebriated cat-eared cohorts and leggy schoolgirls. Adults sit patiently by the door, hoping to be amused and entertained by the wandering crowds, or carefully prep cocktails and treats that can be enjoyed in merriment.

For whatever Halloween was intended to be, from the bright, gaudy wonderful Dia de los Muertos, to the stylized and chic modern All Hallow’s Eve, it provides an opportunity often squandered by those caught in the currents of time. I’ve long since grown past trick or treating, and this year I’ve finally reached the point where the raging costume parties of early adulthood have lost their sheen. But I will never grow beyond the costumes.

Everyone, from the youngest child to the oldest geriatric, should dress to the nines. There’s no need to gorge on sweets, to party until the cows come home (unless of course they already arrived and are partying right alongside, in which case there’s no need to party until they go home), or to claim maturity as an excuse for not participating. Simply put, Halloween should be the world’s opportunity to embrace their inner kid.

It seems as though adults feel like there isn’t a place for them in Halloween. Certainly, the high-profile celebrity costume parties are one response, and trick or treating with one’s kids is another, but adults are often treated like hangers-on to an expression of youth. Some parents go so far as to dress in joint costumes with their kids: I heard of one mother daughter duo where the mom dressed as a trick or treating princess and the kid dressed rather simply as a chaperoning parent. It’s a brilliant flip to the normal roles, but it’s also a surprisingly clear commentary on an adults place on Halloween.

A few of my friends talk about freaking the norms and the art of making Joes who seem a bit too everyday uncomfortable. The intent, first and foremost, is personal pleasure, but they defend this hedonism with arguments that the stiffness of rehearsed roles is one foisted on all of us by those who fall into them. The beauty of Halloween is that normality is an afterthought. If only for a moment, Halloween can prove that the doldrums of everyday existence need not be.

Certainly, there’s a certain oddity in going through everyday motions in strange attire, but Halloween provides us an opportunity to remember that what we see usually isn’t what we get. It’s a chance to creatively explore our inner psyche and our outer wardrobe. It grants us an opportunity to play in every interaction without guile or insult, and yet it doesn’t precipitate a need to do so. Work can still get done, lives still kept safe, and a touch of youthfulness can be instilled into every waking moment.

This year, my costume was a meager one cobbled together from the remnants of my closet. It was far from clever or impressive, often going unnoticed throughout the day. Most of the time, I even forgot that I was dressed at all differently.

And yet, the few times where my costume rose to the forefront of my mind, there was a subtle tingle of joy. That is what I want for everyone; that is a change that Halloween can bring.