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The Real Halloween Horrors: Finding The Perfect Costume

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In elementary school, life is measured simply: in holidays.

Each month, the bulletin boards change and the special day to look forward to is marked on the calendars. As a general rule, you get one holiday per month–even in December Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s get combined. (Ignore, if you will, pesky February, who was so upset about being short that he snatched up Valentine’s Day, Groundhog Day, and President’s Day).

As soon as we flip our calendars from September to October, every person under the age of 13 (or, in some cases, 113) plans excitedly for Halloween. There is only one thing to dream about when the teacher starts talking about long division: what are you going to wear on the 31st?

Elementary Halloween parties are full of witches, fairies, generic princesses, and characters from whatever happens to be the most popular children’s movie that fall. While you get points for having a bigger ball gown than Susie, you also get docked points for not being creative.

I decided to solve this problem by adding an aspect to my costumes that I felt would give me a leg up: acting. Anyone can dress up as a lion, but how many people can growl and roar ferociously, instilling terror into other children?

Or at least I thought I did.

Now there were a few flaws with this plan. The first being that my costume was spectacular to begin with. Not to brag, but my mother makes a mean lion costume, and it will probably tear your $35 store-bought lion costume to shreds–that’s what I thought.

The second flaw being that lions don’t wear sneakers and walk around. They crawl on the ground and roar. In frigid October weather on streets that were covered in who knows what grime and grit, my mother disagreed. To my great dismay, she made me walk on two legs–can you believe it?–and ask for my candy like a normal person.

Some lion.

On the whole, that Halloween was good. I at least had mentally prepared myself to get in character. So, convinced that next year would be a Tony award-winning performance (Tony awards being translated, in this case, to King size candy bars rather than bite size), I settled in with my pillowcase of candy, content to munch on it with my purely human, omnivorous, sugar-rotted teeth.

Next fall, even I fell prey to the popular children’s movie phenomenon. Disney came out with a doozy that year: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Completely historically inaccurate and marvelously entertaining, I settled on my Halloween costume as soon as I saw the movie (in June).

Ok that’s a slight exaggeration. But at least as soon as I saw the costume hanging up in the store.

That’s right. I wanted to be Esmeralda so badly that I made my poor mother, who could sew the pants off and on and off a lion again, buy me a costume at iParty–only authenticity would do. For purist me, the packaged, Disney-branded costume would only be complete with a black curly wig that I’m pretty sure was attached to a rockstar costume to begin with. I was prepared for the greatest Halloween ever.

You see, in the movie, Esmeralda demonstrates the ultimate trick-or-treat. It involved a pole, a tambourine, and a lot of dancing. Well a pole I had not–probably for the best, in hindsight–but I could get my hands on a tambourine, and boy could I dance! If she could get bearded, armored Frenchmen to give her money, then I could certainly get sweatshirted suburban housewives to give me candy.

My mother, ever the wise one, explained to me that dancing for my candy would not be necessary, as the whole point of Halloween was people giving it to you for free.

Little did she know that she had just unleashed hell. Not dance for my candy? That was the whole point!! Why would I ever dress up as Esmeralda and not act like her? Not give my neighbors the joy of my performance? Not have the authenticity of having earned my candy? After all, I was eight now: it was time to start making my way in the world.

I demonstrated, quickly, how I planned to earn my keep with my mad dance moves. Pictures exist.

Exasperated with me I’m sure, Mom forestalled the argument by suggesting that we just get going. Which led to another problems: gypsies, like lions, do not wear sneakers. They go barefoot. Nor do they wear coats in 30 degree weather.

Long story short, she won that argument on the condition that I could dance at one house. And bless that suburban woman’s heart, she gave me five times as much candy as any other kid on the block.

Victory was, a little bit, mine.

Girded with the knowledge that I had to make my character at least a bit accessible to my modern lifestyle, next year my plan was brilliant. After all, the greatest acting challenge is to be something that you are entirely not, right? So I turned to the only logical choice:

This Halloween, I would be a piano key.

This, my friends, was the Halloween that ruined Halloween for me.
People always encourage you to dress up as things that somewhat interest you. In the middle of piano lessons and feeling like the next Mozart, and also looking for a costume I could help my mom make, rather than watch, I came up with the brilliant idea of being a piano key. Two, actually. An F and an F#.
This costume was, quite simply, a box. We taped a lot of white posterboard together, cut out holes for my arms and face, and used endless amounts of black Sharpie to color in a black key on the side.

I thought I was brilliant. Because piano keys have no feet, they can wear sneakers (I’m not really sure how that was a logical solution to me). Also, I could wear as warm an outfit as my mother demanded beneath the monstrosity of my actual costume. Pictures of me at the school Halloween party are just me in regular clothes, since my teacher thought I was too “dangerous” (read, clumsy) to wear my costume for the whole time.

Which, of course, I was.

This Halloween was doubly exciting for me. Not only did I have the greatest costume ever, it was also the first year that I got to go out with my big brother and his friends. I was a cool kid, going trick-or-treating with other kids and not just my lame, sneaker-wearing mom.

I will spare you the bloody, teary, tripping-over-stone-walls details, but when your brother and his friends run a lot faster than you anyway, wearing a box does not help. Nor does it make you cool.

It also doesn’t make you feel cool when every single adult answers the door and asks you if you are a refrigerator. I have a vivid memory of a near-tears outburst at one woman. “A piano keeeeeeeyyyy!” I wailed.

That’s when my mom decided it was time to go home. We abandoned my brother in his hip, Ash Ketchum from Pokemon outfit and headed back.
The next year I needed respite: I dressed as a mime so that I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone.

You can guess for yourself whether I was a mime for the next three years because I had bought the costume or because I was still getting over the piano key trauma. Either way, I finally got into the character.

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About Jen Herrmann