Years ago I knew a woman who was obsessed with Halloween. I remember one conversation I had with her in which she tried to explain that it was a night that put into practice, if only temporarily, every interesting idea about identity, theatricality, and sexuality. "As a children's holiday, it's amusing; as an adult's holiday, it's revelatory because of what it conceals," she said. She was a graduate student, which is a peculiar kind of disguise that involves taking highly personal and vexed questions and holding them at arm's length, in intellectual suspension. The costume comes with extra-long arms.
"I don't care," I said. I think we were going up the stairs to her apartment. She turned around to glower at me. "Turn back around," I said. "That way it's harder for me to hear you."
"To hear what?" she said.
"I'm assuming you're going to go on with this grand theory of Halloween."
She went on. She said that even though it's considered a holiday that honors the dead, it more accurately honors the dead parts of living people, the aspects of their personality they can't bring to life in their ordinary routine. "People dressed up as evil spirits to ward off evil, supposedly, but weren't they really dressing up as evil spirits to give voice, even if only temporarily, if only theatrically, to the evil impulses in themselves that they couldn't otherwise abide?" She then breathlessly mapped the holiday into literary history, linking it intimately with Twelfth Night, especially, and the way that Viola's decision to dress up as Cesario both validates and explodes everything that we believe about appearance, reality, self-knowledge, and attraction. The play, she theorized, was an interrogation of identity and imposture. Are we defined by the clothes we wear or by the clothes we don't wear? Are we most ourselves when we are dressing the part or when we are wholly undressed?
"I don't care," I said. We had gotten to her apartment by now, and we tested the various theories: dressing the part, wholly undressed. That year for Halloween, she went as a milkmaid and carried an oversize bottle that she labeled "deception." Go figure. I didn't dress up.
I won't be dressing up tomorrow night either. I like to say that it's because I'm so honest about every aspect of my being, but that's just an oversize bottle labeled "deception." The fact is that I have other ways of disguising myself--or, to be more honest, one other way. I do it in print. When I write, whether it's these essays, or a book of fiction, or any other piece, I put on a costume. I can be a little more introspective, a little more cavalier, a little more wounded, a little more dour. I don't have to be myself, exactly. This year, that's a relief. For a month or so, I've been slightly destabilized, mostly for stupid reasons: a birthday that affected me more than I thought it would, followed by some mild emotional distemper. I thought that some friends were mad at me. I snapped at other friends. I exhibited both churlishness and paranoia. I got past it, but the way I got past it was interesting: I explained it away as a voluntary strategy I employed to deal with a larger set of issues: in short, as a costume. That meant that it wasn't real, that I could just do away with the problematic feelings and behavior whenever I wanted. There's another option, of course -- that when that mask is removed the face beneath is identical, that the costume is a confirmation rather than a distraction -- but rather than confront that head-on, I'll proceed to the Halloween parade.
I know four people who are staying home tonight to put the finishing touches on their costumes.
I know three people who have the same costume from year to year (always a pirate, always a ghost), to the point where that other identity has acquired a stability of its own.
I know two people who have, in the past, gotten in trouble with their significant others because their costumes appeared to reveal some previously unknown truth about them.
I know one person who says that he will never dress up again because on a normal day he doesn't know who he is and doesn't feel confident enough to risk it.
I know countless people who (like me) aren't dressing up for the holiday, but who (unlike me) like to joke that they are dressing up as themselves, and who believe that this is a trenchant remark that reveals something about the way that society forces us to play certain roles (worker, partner, child) for which we may not, deep down, be any more suited than we are for the roles of "vampire" or "sexy barmaid." I know countless other people who handle the holiday more traditionally, who take on the vampire or sexy barmaid identities at face value, as id aids, and who want the rest of us to believe that's who they really are underneath the social roles, or who they could be if they were better at pronouncing their true selves.
I no longer know one person who, the year she dressed as a milkmaid, got her costume knotted up while she was trying to take it off. She was stuck inside her false identity, and she reacted to this problem with academic glee. "O time, thou must untangle this, not I," she said. "It is too hard a knot for me to untie."
"I don't care," I said. But then I started to feel her panic at being trapped inside there and went for a Bobby pin to help her free herself.