News and Tribune

October 22, 2010

STAWAR: Decoding the Halloween costume

By TERRY STAWAR
Local Columnist

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — After New Year’s Eve, Halloween is now America’s second biggest adult party night, and costumes are an important part of the evening. Across the country, there are almost 2,000 costume rental stores and we spend nearly $1.5 billion on Halloween costumes and related paraphernalia each year.

Many social scientists believe that your Halloween costume reveals more about your personality than it conceals. My wife, Diane, says it is just like us know-it-all psychologists to suck all the pleasure out of something as fun as dressing up for Halloween by over analyzing it.

Dallas journalist Nancy Churnin calls costume selection the “ultimate Rorschach test.” Sigmund Freud once said, “there are no accidents,” meaning that our choices are not as random as we would like to believe. Choosing a Halloween costume can be an unconscious way of defining our identities.    

Prosaic factors like time, convenience, expense and comfort all come into play in our selections. But even these have a lot to say about who we are. For example, people who wait until the last moment and then dress like a hobo or throw a sheet over themselves and come as a ghost would typically score low on “conscientiousness,” one of the five basic dimensions of personality. Such people are low in self-discipline; careless, but spontaneous.

Convenience may be a factor, if you wear a costume simply because it’s available. Many families have “legacy costumes” that may go back several generations. Growing up, my family had three of these; a Dutch boy costume, a jacket with six fake arms; and our famous witch’s costume that included my grandmother’s black dress and a pair of her shoes. The witch was only a mildly exaggerated caricature of my actual grandmother and was especially terrifying. Many people refuse to wear legacy costumes, because they don’t fit with their self-image.

Generally, costume selection is based on either wanting to emulate an admired figure or to explore unfamiliar feelings and characteristics. When given a free hand, often our costumes are idealized versions of what we would like to be, or polar opposites of our typical personalities.

In “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” Lucy says that, “A person should choose a costume that contrasts her own personality.” John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University in New Jersey asks his students to pick costumes for each other and they usually choose ones that are the opposite of their peer’s expressed personality.

According to University of Evansville psychoanalyst Mark Kopta, favorite costumes change from year to year, but underlying archetypes remain consistent. Archetypes are instinctively familiar unconscious concepts that are handed down from past generations.

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who developed this notion, believed that all people carry inside them the archetypes of mythic figures, such as “the hero,” “the clown,” “the great mother” and even a dark side, which he called “the shadow.” Harry Potter’s Dumbledore and Lord of the Ring’s Gandalf are two different incarnations of the same “wise old man” archetype.

According to Dr. Kopta, dressing up helps us explore archetypal aspects of ourselves that are usually suppressed. Enacting some of these roles helps us master our fears and impulses, much the same way that children can overcome fears of monsters by pretending to be monsters themselves.

Dr. Suler and psychology professor Sally Foster from the University of Miracosta, in California, have analyzed various categories of Halloween costumes and have speculated on their symbolic meanings. Among their major classifications are:

• Animal costumes. Animals symbolize features such as strength, instinctual cunning and the ability to commune with nature. For example, gorillas, lions and bears represent power and strength. Rabbits are seen as gentle and cuddly creatures, while mice symbolize vulnerability. Dogs usually represent loyalty, while cats are a feminine symbol that often expresses independence.

•    Comical and cartoon costumes: Jokers and clowns, typically symbolize fun, whimsy and playfulness, although they also have a dark side (as illustrated by Batman’s nemesis “The Joker” and Stephen King’s horrific clown, “Pennywise”). Usually, comic characters are very attention-seeking. Familiar cartoon characters reflect regression to childhood functioning, as well as withdrawal from the real world and retreat into fantasy.

• Heroic costumes: “The hero” archetype is always very popular, especially among males. Dressing up like Superman, Spiderman or Batman suggests child-like fantasies of combating evil and saving the world. These costumes embody the masculine wish to be strong, brave and admired. They may be a means of compensating for feelings of inadequacy or simply a way to express the wearer’s affection for the character.

•    Seductive costumes: To the dismay of parents, flirtatious costumes seem to be on the rise. One Christmas we bought our two young granddaughters a box of “Wizard of Oz” costumes by mail order. To our consternation and their parents’ horror, when they opened the box, the costumes were more suitable for Las Vegas show girls than elementary school students. When adults wear risqué costumes, it may indicate sexual interest or exhibitionistic tendencies, but it might, just as well, express its opposite — sexual repression.

• Scary costumes: These costumes may indicate a desire to shock others or to get in touch with the darker side of the personality. Dr. Foster says, “Evil costumes allow people to safely — and even creatively — express their dark side without guilt.” According to Dr. Suler, people may also use frightening costumes as a way to keep others at a distance, which may suggest social anxiety or intimacy concerns.

• Trendy costumes: Such costumes are usually influenced by current events, recent films and popular television shows. People who choose these costumes value being tuned into “the latest and greatest” and want to show others how “with it” they are. Celebrity costumes, like Lady Gaga or the president, may embody wishes for wealth, power or admiration.

Finally in regards to symbolism, you might disagree with Freud and say that “sometimes a costume, is just a costume.”

But this year, whether you ultimately choose to go as Alice in Wonderland, Edward from Twilight or that seductive French maid, just remember that other people will be scrutinizing your choice and drawing their own conclusions.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring, the mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Check out his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at http://planetterry.wordpress.com