Once, in a lucid and ironic season,
I looked behind the mask the living wear,
Hardly expecting either fiend or angel
Under the tarnished brightness of that stare.
-John A. Holmes (from “The Mask the Living Wear”)
I’ve often felt that the costumes people wear on Halloween show more about their true character than the “masks” they wear everyday. I once worked for a company that allowed all employees to dress up for Halloween, and they even brought in judges for a costume contest. It was fascinating to see all of the symbols and archetypes everyone portrayed through their choice of attire. Some of the highest corporate ladder climbers often ended up sporting the most original designs. It was like they had one day out of the whole year to let their inner eight year-old come out and play, and they weren’t about to miss the opportunity.
Personally, I have been a belly dancer, Tinkerbell, Wednesday from the Addams Family, a lioness, a witch, a dark fairy, and the incomparable Stevie Nicks, just to name a few of my Halloween get-ups. That probably tells you more than you wanted to know about me, and it tells me plenty about what was going on in my life during those years.
So, why do we get all decked out and made up for Halloween anyway? There’s a hefty volume of folklore on the subject and a lot of conjecture as well. The concept of wearing masks to fool evil spirits dates back to pre-Christian Europe, but we can’t draw a clean, straight line from the Celts and the celebration of Samhain to the way trick-or-treating and costumes evolved in America. Millions of Scots-Irish immigrated to the U.S. from the mid-1700s to the 1880s, which led to the assumption that they brought the medieval traditions of “guising” or “souling” with them. If that’s the case, then it took quite a long time for those customs to morph into trick-or-treating, which didn’t become popular or widespread in America until the late 1920s. Keep in mind that interest in the occult and various theosophical societies virtually exploded at the same time. Clearly, the Roaring Twenties was a kick-ass time to be alive, especially if you happened to be a witch.
Regardless of exactly how it came to be, the tradition of wearing costumes on Halloween is here now and bigger than ever. More importantly, it opens a door into the psyche that generally stays shut for the remaining 364 days of the year. We live in a world of duality. If we suppress the dark, it tends to surface in unhealthy ways. If we bring it out into the open, it loses power over us. Flaunting our Jasons, our Freddy Kruegers, and our Alien Queens allows us to flip the bird at our deep-seated fears about death and the dark side. It’s why these gruesome characters exist on the big screen in the first place. Even if we find them repulsive and frightening, we actually need them. They represent the darkest of the dark, which provides contrast for us to see the lightest of the light.
It’s a dynamic we’ve enjoyed playing with for millennia. The ancient theologians of Greece and Rome wore masks to portray specific characters, and the Latin word for mask is where we get the word persona. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are always wearing a social mask that changes constantly. “In Jungian psychology, …the persona is closely connected to the ego because the role that we play in any social situation tends to structure our conscious identity within that setting.” We are one way with our friends, another with family, and yet another at work. The differences may be subtle, but they are there if we care to look.
Halloween allows us to make a conscious choice about the mask we wear (at least for one night), and I believe the selected costume often embodies the shadow self. It’s not just the zombies and the vampires that carry our darkness for us. Even the glittery princess, the fairy, and the angel can be aspects of the shadow. According to Jung, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it.”
I offer up the theory that All Hallows’ Eve presents an opportunity for course correction, so to speak. We can invite the shadow out to dance with it and explore its depths by literally wearing it on the outside. We can be whoever or whatever we want, and no one will judge us except perhaps for our artistry and inventiveness in costume design.
I was watching a video by Matt Kahn recently in which he puts forth the most essential spiritual question: “Who do you become when you don’t get your way?” The answer to that question is your shadow, my friends. Maybe that answer can guide your next Halloween costume idea. What comes forth when life doesn’t go as planned? Who is that person behind the social mask? Maybe you become the ghost, the sorceress, the slasher, or the demon. Maybe you become the sexy nurse or the superhero. Whatever your shadow is, own it, get to know it better, and appreciate whatever it teaches you on October 31st while the veil between worlds is thin.
Have a Blessed Samhain
“Psychology and Religion” (1938). In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131
© 2015 Jennifer R. Miller