Masking the meaning on Halloween

Nancy Aronie
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Photo by Sara Piazza

By CK Wolfson - October 26, 2006

Is nothing simple any more?

It seems there is significance hidden under those ghostly white sheets, gauzy fairy wings, and the other things that go bump on Halloween night. While you may believe picking your costume is a random decision, many scholars and psychologists believe it reveals your inner self; your hidden personality, likes, dislikes, and fantasies.

Be careful. You're about to be found out.

Many experts agree that to costume yourself as a celebrity can be interpreted as a reverence for cultural trends or an emulation of the specific celebrity's personality. Fairy or princess costumes suggest a desire for more innocent times, an idealized beauty. Clowns translate to youth and whimsy; ghouls and villains, to a guiltless expression of a dark side. Even dressing as animals or cartoon characters draws upon essential types: Elmer Fudd, the bumbling but endearing victim; Road Runner, the indomitable trickster; Sleeping Beauty - hmmm - too fraught with psychological meanings to sum up simply.

Philip Craig
The mystery is whether the pen is mightier than the sword. Photo by Ralph Stewart

Costuming oneself on Halloween, All Hallows Eve, is a long-established tradition originating 2500 years ago in the fifth century B.C. with Celtics and Druids. That was when October 31 marked summer's end, the Celtic New Year, and the roving ghosts of the recently departed went through villages searching for living bodies to possess - their chance for an afterlife. Never mind the candy. To protect themselves from those evil spirits, and ward off possession, villagers disguised themselves in ghoulish costumes.

The custom of Halloween, complete with pranks, was brought to America in the 1840s by Irish immigrants, and the custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated with a ninth-century Christian custom called "souling," which involved beggars who walked from village to village asking for bread ("soul cakes") in return for a promise to pray that the donors' spirits find safe passage to heaven.

And then, somewhere between the Druids and Walt Disney, Halloween for many settled into its role as a popular, secular, happy holiday - especially for children and dentists.

Not that adults don't enjoy having parties and getting in costumes. Often, just speculating about what they'd pick if they did dress up for Halloween is enough for many grownups.

Trip Barnes
Facing the world with a smile.

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School principal Peg Reagan admits to liking the idea of dressing up as activist actress Susan Sarandon. Martha's Vineyard Artisan Festival organizer Andrea Rogers says she'd dress up as a hippie, complete with the heels and fishnet stockings she wore as a trick-or-treating youngster. Painter Bill McLane would go out dressed as Rembrandt, suave in beret, smock, and high boots.

The choices of some Islanders are more provocative than others. Red Stocking director Lorraine Clark barely pauses before announcing that she'd be a French whore - "Don't ask me why. Maybe I was one in a previous life;" and comedian and master-of-ceremonies Marty Nadler, sounding like he's about to spring a punch line, says he'd pick Osama bin Laden.

So what about the guy ahead of you at the post office - what might you learn about him from the way he'd dress up for Halloween? What secrets might lurk behind the mask of that woman squeezing produce at Reliable Market? Would it be enlightening to know what costume might be worn by Trip Barnes of Barnes Moving & Storage?

"I love Halloween. I'm a kid myself," Mr. Barnes offers easily. "I'd just pick some happy personality, Bugs Bunny or Porky Pig. I don't like to be a villain. I wouldn't wear anything depressing or scary. Maybe Casper the Friendly Ghost. Of course, most of my comic characters have been retired to rest homes and are collecting social security."

Tristan Israel
Editing his opinion.

And then there's mystery novelist Phil Craig: "I grew up on a ranch. We didn't have Halloween. There was no place to go. But as a kid, I loved swashbuckling movies, movies with Errol Flynn. In fact, that influenced me to go to Boston University and take fencing. So I would pick dressing up as one of the Three Musketeers, or Cyrano deBergerac.

Nancy Aronie, author and host of the new Sirius satellite radio show, "Writing From the Heart," isn't particular about who she would dress up to be. After admitting being drawn to the sensitive, sexy character of late actor James Dean, she decides any character will do. As long as she would get to wear a tiara.

"I would definitely like to wear a tiara because I look good in a tiara," she says happily. "If it were not a weird thing I would wear it to Cronig's."

Tristan Israel, one of Tisbury's notable politicos, struggles for a moment, then, because he likes Times editor Doug Cabral, says he would dress up like him. He chuckles. "I'd knock on doors and tell people how to carve a better pumpkin."

One thing does seem clear: People spend a lifetime creating the masks they wear, and then a lifetime trying to figure out who they are. Time out. This weekend, be whoever strikes your fancy, smile when you say, "Boo," and share the chocolate.

Editor's Note: In accompanying photos, masks were added digitally.