I never knew what to be for Halloween. I never knew what to be, period. Donning a disguise is probably easier when you know what you are; otherwise, it’s hard to feel certain about what you aren’t. I must have aged out of dressing up around 12 or 13, and I remember experiencing it as a relief. It felt better to stay in and witness the night than to enter it myself.
It still does. Not that Halloween is frightening, per se: But it’s suffused with a strange, intense energy. The holiday gets its depth and intrigue from the layering of things that seem frightening but are really benign — toothy jack-o’-lanterns, ghoulish costumes, tales of ghosts and witches and monsters — atop things that seem benign but are really frightening, such as the passage of the harvest season into the long, cold dark, and its attendant reminders of ever-present death. With its invitation to embrace the eerie and ominous by way of temporary transformation, Halloween serves as a kind of pressure valve for our deepest anxieties. It’s a celebration of thinned boundaries between life and death, good and evil, what you are and what you could be.
I know: It feels a little ridiculous to take an occasion ostensibly dedicated to children so seriously. But that’s part of the holiday’s oddly layered character. There’s nothing particularly meaningful in a kid suited up like a Power Ranger on the hunt for candy. But there’s something altogether more pointed in the admixture of sex and death in the provocative costumes of adults, not to mention the way that certain tensions — about politics, religion, culture — tend to manifest in the night’s disguises, as well. There’s a note of experimentation there, and of danger: People making play of things that normally worry them, toying with thoughts they don’t normally entertain and behaviors they wouldn’t typically condone, in a context where social expectations are momentarily suspended.
Perhaps the whole thing feels more immediate now that the spirit of Halloween seems to have bled beyond its mandated night. Contemporary politics is haunted by a kind of sharply pitched, ambiguously menacing rhetorical tendency that seems to have been birthed online, where Halloween never ends. On the Internet, where social contexts are hard to judge and impossible to regulate, where everyone is a stranger and nothing seems real, costumes are in some sense the norm.
And there’s no relief from it. Right after Halloween comes cold, sober November, with clean autumn light and a nod toward Thanksgiving, Halloween’s cathartic opposite — the holiday on which you are most fully yourself, embedded in family and community, led to gratitude for what you have, not fear over what you imagine. But online, that clarity never comes: Everyone always remains hidden, if not fully submerged in anonymity, then at least performing some character or another on social media.
What happens when a costume never comes off, and when the opportunity to experiment with strange and dark aspects of one’s own identity never fades? So much of political conversation now has to do with attempting to distinguish the real and really intended from the false and falsely meant. Ought we take President Trump literally, or only seriously? Ought we assume he means everything he says both explicitly and implicitly — or should we assume he’s essentially inscrutable? What ought we make of the denizens of the Internet who operate always at some remove from what they really think — performing fascism, but ironically, or Nazism, but only as a joke? Is there some point where the catharsis of playing with the dark and taboo settles into a steadier comfort, and the costume becomes the person?
I still struggle with how exactly to do Halloween. It’s a neurosis of some kind, probably. I always had this primal fear of losing myself somehow, either in the feverish pitch of the night or in a costume itself: I had an overly acute awareness, maybe, of the fact that the boundaries between what you are and what you pretend to be — even in fun, even in experimentation — are not impermeable. It sounds like a superstition. But the frightening thing is that the older I get, the more certain of it I am. Halloween suggests that everything you imagine in moments of dread is more real than you might typically suppose. I think that’s true, and it chills me to the bone.