Elizabeth Brady ’25 is a public policy major and an English minor, and she is a member of Alpha Chi Omega. She loves art, music and movies. Email her at email@example.com.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.
If you ask a College of William and Mary student what they’re going to be for Halloween, you’re probably going to get an answer in list form. If you ask when Halloween is, Oct. 31 might be their second answer, second to whatever costume-related plans they’re most excited for or the closest non-school night to the actual day of festivities.
Something strange and wonderful happens to Halloween as you grow up; it goes from one night of candy-gathering to something else entirely.
Halloweekend is universally acknowledged as the weekend when you go a little crazier, stay out a little later and get in a little more trouble than you normally do. Something about the opportunity to put on a costume just does something to people — there’s a certain freedom that you get when you don’t look like yourself.
Appearance and action are so closely linked in the human brain and in our daily lives that we rely on visual patterns and cues to know what to expect from the people around us. It’s evolutionary — a way for us to avoid danger and unknowns.
But on a night when everyone is in costume, when no one looks like themselves, the visual cues we use to inform our social cues vanish. It’s jarring; the rug of visual communication is ripped from under us, and we don’t know what to expect. But at the same time, when we don’t know what to expect, we know there is nothing expected of us. It’s rare that we get the opportunity to step outside the existing structures of physical and visual coding, but when it presents itself, people tend to take advantage to its fullest extent.
This idea of looking different means acting different is nothing new. The strength of physical markers of identity and behavior are due in part to their persistence; for the entirety of human history and across almost every culture, people have dressed differently when they want to act differently.
The “jaguar knights” of the ancient Aztecs, crossdressing Shakespearean actors and Japanese geisha all assumed a form of non-normative dress for the purpose of assuming or communicating a non-normative standard of action. They assumed a role outside of themselves of ferocity, farce and masterful performance, respectively.
I recognize that this is a very deep reading of a holiday that primarily involves dressing silly and going to parties. My love of Halloween, of a silly little costume, of a night of raunchy unusualness, of bad decisions, runs so deep that I’d like to tell myself that it has some kind of deeper sociological significance. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t; regardless, Halloween is one of the only days where we can really color outside the lines. You have one (or three or four, depending on your level of dedication) days to do something completely out of character and become something other than yourself.
Because of my ardent dedication to both the spirit and practice of Halloween, planning my costumes usually begins in August. I make Pinterest boards, I scour thrift stores, I examine my closet, I bring out my sewing machine and I plan extensively — usually to change my mind night-of, abandoning my carefully laid plans for something that makes up in novelty what it lacks in elegance. As a lover of crafts and a disciple of doing things myself, the hardest part, inevitably, is not actually making the costume but instead deciding what to make.
There are so many angles, exigencies and influences that can contribute to such a monumental decision. Do you want the gleeful cohesion of a group costume? The cold-legs-despite-the-fishnets feeling of being a “sexy [insert anything here]”? The smug satisfaction of a perfectly poised joke costume? Or are you going to figure something out last minute and go solely for vibes alone? Speaking from an extensive wealth of experience, I have the most fun (and the best pictures) in the costumes that are the least like me. Those costumes are the ones that come from the longest nights and create the most fun stories to tell.
Dress has a concrete power: it makes us feel sexy and scary, invincible and exposed. When we want others to believe something about us, we try to look a certain way, so on nights when we don’t look the way we expect ourselves to, we can escape the beliefs and identities we’ve created for and about ourselves. What you’re not going to be for Halloween matters almost more than what you are going to be. It’s the most largely accepted cultural hall-pass for all kinds of weirdness, so my advice is always to take the opportunity and run with it.
So go crazy! Be smart while you’re getting stupid, stay safe, and have a happy Halloween.