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Halloween: A Modern-Day Feast of Fools

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year… no, not Christmas. It’s the time when children put on costumes and collect treats from neighbors, and the rest of us either grumpily sit at home and hand out those treats, or put on costumes and get drunk in them.

But why? Why do people love Halloween so much?

I know why kids love it. Kids are crazy for candy. Candy is like the top priority for children. When I was in high school, I would drive to the store and buy candy in bulk, then sell it to my baby brother at a drastically marked-up price. Morally objectionable, maybe, but it just goes to show: Candy is king.

But I’m 21 now, and although I admit I’ve got a sweet tooth, some free candy is not worth a trek around the neighborhood, awkwardly knocking on strangers’ doors. I suspect many people who have already gone through puberty agree with me.

But lots of adults still love and celebrate Halloween. Candy and costumes are just about the only factors involved in this holiday, so it’s only logical that the continuing love is all about the costumes.

Admit it: you love dressing up. Whether it’s in front of the mirror, at the bars, or at a theme party, dressing up is really fun. And dressing as something totally opposite from your real self can be exhilarating.

See, Halloween is really like an escape from real life. Everyone puts on their costumes and their new identities for the night. As happy as any of us claims to be, everyone experiences some discontent with life sometimes. Living can be so mundane!

This love of escapism through costumes was explored by Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and literary critic. He explored the carnivals of Renaissance-era Europe, and analyzed the culture surrounding the “carnivalesque,” a term he coined which connotes a literary mode that ridicules and subverts the preeminent social order.

This can be traced back to the Feast of Fools, a medieval festival in which participants would dress as a mock clergy and then perform mock religious ceremonies as an act of rebellion against the oppressive powers of the church. Bakhtin’s work is important for the study of human social development, as it deals with the formation and refinement of humor and sarcasm.

Bakhtin proposed that by challenging the social hierarchy, people gave themselves a release, and also tested the accepted truths of day-to-day life. In the minds of participants, this knocks the hegemonic authority off its ivory tower for a short time, and this can inspire social and political change in the minds and communities of the laypeople.

So, Halloween is sort of a modern-day Feast of Fools. People often dress in a way that challenges that which oppresses them, as a way of subverting that power for a night. A few examples: Men who generally live in typical hegemonic masculinity can dress as a woman without being marginalized by their manly buddies; women who have repressed sexuality can don any number of variations on the “Sexy Profession/Animal/Historical Figure” costume; and blue-collar folks can dress as some rich elite.

Although we tend to see dressing up in costume as just for fun, these escapist performances of corporeal identity are challenging the status quo of societal oppression. I know that’s a pretty lofty, academic explanation for a kids’ holiday, but it’s always fun to think about our actions in a different way.

So here are some opposite-of-you ideas for Halloween costumes:

For broke college students who usually don jeans and a t-shirt: Get your glam on with an Andy Warhol, Lady Gaga, David Bowie, or Carrie Bradshaw costume.

For modest ladies: You should be able to find some kind of “Sexy Sex Worker” or “Sexy Floozy” costume pretty much anywhere, but if that’s too revealing, there’s always the “Sexy Bumblebee” or the “Sexy Lady Cop”…oh wait, they’re basically all tiny dresses that show lots of cleavage and leg. Oh well, if you got it, flaunt it, right?

Conservatives/Republicans/Tea Partiers: Go as Karl Marx! Everyone will love your crazy beard, and while you’re at it you can educate everyone on the evils of taxes!

Liberals/Democrats: Dress up as Rush Limbaugh. When you get embarrassingly drunk, you can claim it’s just part of the act. Same goes for a Glenn Beck costume and belligerently ranting or crying for no reason.

And remember: don’t ever wear blackface! I don’t care how bad you want to be Barack Obama, that shit is racist.

After the parties have ended and you’re still wearing some ridiculous getup, it’s important to embarrass yourself by wearing it in a public place. My usual spot is the Circle K gas station where I buy a huge soda, but I also suggest an all-night diner or maybe Walmart. The best way to go about this is to pretend you have forgotten you’re in costume, and look annoyed when your cashier is staring at that Burt Reynolds mustache you’ve plastered on your face.

Once you’ve gotten supplies for the rest of the night (popcorn, discount Halloween candy, an enormous soda of your own, more beer, etc.), head home and pop in a scary movie. That’s right, we can’t forget about the most important part of Halloween: being terrified.

Take that costume off (did you really think people were going to be impressed by your lame attempt at Kate from Lost?) and put The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or The Sixth Sense into your DVD player. Curl up in your bed, reflect on another successful Halloween, and start making plans for next year’s costume. As for me, I’ve been working on this “Sexy Oliver Twist” idea for years, and I think this is the year.

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