When I was little, Halloween was my favorite holiday. What was not to like? I got to dress up like whatever Disney princess, super hero, or historical figure (yeah, I was that kid) I was into at the moment, stay out past my bedtime, and give myself a sugar high on candy. Even parents threw themselves into the fun. In my neighborhood, several families could always be counted on to assemble amateur haunted houses, Jack-o-lanterns were on every stoop, and even the nuns who lived in a house behind the local church kept some candy by their door.
As I got older, Halloween started to change. It was no longer enough to just throw something together with whatever you had lying around your house. Halloween was about looking sexy or making a statement about not looking sexy while being ironic or funny. This involved a lot of planning and effort. And there was less candy at the parties.
When I got to college, there always seemed to be some member of the student body who used the holiday as a way to offend people. I’ve seen people dressed as abortionists (carrying a coat hanger and a name tag that says ‘Women’s Center’), ‘ghetto girls’ (hoop earings and imitations of urban slang), dress in black face (self-explanatory), suicide bombers, ‘dead hookers’ (violence against women, lolz), some variety of “gay” (you’re a homo, haha) … When confronted with these people at all-campus parties or out on the street, exhibiting any kind of negative reaction, or even simply refusing to laugh at blatant racisim/sexim/classism/ bigotry, only lands you with the label of ‘no fun’ or ‘too politically correct.’ It’s Halloween, right? It’s funny, lighten up.
No one who knows me at all will be surprised to learn that, for years, Halloween has stressed me out more than anything else. There’s stress about what to wear, stress about how people will react to it, stress about how I will react to people.
This year was the first time I’ve celebrated Halloween outside the United States. My graduate program is split about 50-50 between Americans and non-Americans. Our student government organized a Halloween party. For many of our students, this was their first time celebrating Halloween. Among my non-American friends, there was a good amount of curiosity about what American Halloween was. A few of my peers asked me if American Halloween was like “that scene in Mean Girls” (the one where Lindsay Lohan arrives at the costume party dressed as a zombie bride while the rest of the girls are wearing animal ears and lingere). I found myself having a difficult time explaining American Halloween to my non-American classmates. The best I could muster was, “you don’t have to wear fishnets. Just … um, dress up.”
The night of the Halloween party, my roommates and I (from the U.S. by way of Cambodia/France/Germany, the UK by way of Somalia/Kenya, and the U.S.) got ready together. Due to limited available supplies, we improvised costumes out of what we had on hand. I went as the bride of Frankenstein (with a serious up-do) while my roommates went as the elements of Air and Water in makeshift togas and funky face paint. We pumped bad Top 40 music, took giggly group shots, and then walked through a normally dressed city to get to our enclave of American debauchery. Somewhere between double-takes from pedestrians and getting down to “Thriller” with students from all over the world, I started to feel like I was ten years old again. I finally realized what the holiday was really about for me when it was something I actually looked forward to: getting creative with costuming, blowing off homework, and terrorizing the neighborhood with friends.
Remind me of this next year when I’m back in D.C. and planning for costuming starts to assume a competitive edge.