Looking for a Meaning in Halloween Costumes

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Halloween costumes confer power and importance to the people who wear them, whether that's a child or and adult. Commentator Diane Roberts offers her own take on the meaning of behind dressing up.


It's that time of year, when jack-o'-lanterns leer from front porches, candy flies off grocery shelves and people try to get creative about what they want to be for Halloween. When commentator Diane Roberts was a child, she went trick-or-treating as a devil princess, sporting a velvet gown, jewels and a pair of long red horns, a costume she found to be only human.


Halloween getups used to come from the old mythologies: the supernatural beings of Europe, the phantoms that followed immigrants to America. You could dress as a black-caped Dracula, a stitched-together Frankenstein's monster, a furry werewolf. If you were lazy or lacked imagination, you could just throw on a sheet and be a ghost.

Now through the magic of popular culture, we have a new mythology, a new set of creatures to be--or pretend to be. A kid zips up a Spider-Man suit or wields a battery-powered light saber or brandishes a wand just like the one Hermione has in "Prisoner of Azkaban."

This isn't simple make-believe. Think about it. The kid gets told what to do all day, every day. The kid has no power. But then the kid puts on a costume and with it all that implied super strength. Nobody tells an accomplished witch to do her homework. Nobody tells Spider-Man what time to go to bed. On Halloween, all the doors will open. The M&Ms, the Butterfingers, the Reese's Pieces, the full-size Snickers bars will be surrendered. The bag will be full.

It's the same with grown people. They, too, want to borrow unaccustomed importance, beauty and command. You're at the Halloween party drinking a pumpkin martini, but you can cast off that old, dull, sensible-shoe-wearing, slouching, Johnson-in-Accounting self and be--and be the elf queen Galadriel or Shrek the ogre or Martha Stewart.

Carnaval, Halloween, Twelfth Night, Mardi Gras, all of the festivals of olden times inverted the power structure. The serfs could put on the masks of kings and queens and gods and monsters. The rulers would obediently hand out candy--or sides of beef and casks of ale. Back in the day, the whole point of trick-or-treating was that if your masters didn't fork over the goodies, you'd play a trick: set fire to the house or toilet paper the castle. Of course, this was just for one night.

HANSEN: Devil Princess Diane Roberts now frightens students at the University of Alabama where she's a professor of English.

It's 22 minutes before the hour.

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