There’s a reason we dress up the way we do at Halloween, you know. And it’s not just dumb, stupid fun. Your Halloween costume says something important about the world you live in.
This year, Americans will spend a cool $8 billion on Halloween celebrations, including $1.2 billion on their kids’ costumes and another $1.5 billion on their own Halloween outfits. That’s a whole lot of witches, vampires, superheroes, and naughty nurses costumes.
So why do we do it? Well, Anthropologists have an expression for events like Halloween, particularly the kind that require costumes. They call them “inversion rituals”.
An inversion ritual is an event or ceremony where people are given permission to violate normal social behaviors, to turn convention on its head, to reverse standard practice. And dressing up allows us to mock the values we’re violating while preserving some level of anonymity.
Basically, an inversion ritual is a sanctioned way to hold a mirror image up to normal social standards.
In societies where hard work, thrift and modesty are the order of the day, you’ll find raucous inversion rituals like Mardi Gras or St Patricks Day.
In societies where life is precarious and death is barely kept at bay, there’ll be a festival like the Day of the Dead.
Where societies are very sexually repressive you’ll see masquerade balls and toga parties.
It’s like lifting a middle finger to all our cultural norms. But only temporarily. And that’s the key to understanding inversion rituals like Halloween. They’re a chance to glimpse the world as it ISN’T, as shouldn’t be. But just a glimpse.
This is why scary movies are so popular. Because we fear a world of chaos and disorder where serial killers or zombies roam the city in search of innocent flesh. We can handle most things, but chaos and disorder, no, not that! Ever!
So watching a horror film is like an inversion ritual. It’s 90 minutes or so in a world of chaos and mayhem where all the things that keep our world safe and ordered are removed. We enjoy those kinds of films precisely because they’ll end in a few minutes and we get to walk out of the cinema into that safe, ordered world. The movie is a reversal ritual that has the effect of helping us reaffirm our confidence in the steady, predictable, controlled world we live in.
Why do you think there was such outrage about this week’s opening episode of the new season of The Walking Dead? Because the horror and the violence felt too authentic, and went on too long, and was inflicted on much-loved characters. It skated too close to the edge of the convention. It felt too real. Watching TWD is meant to be a reversal ritual that releases us at the final credits with renewed confidence in an ordered world. Not this!
Halloween is the same. For one brief night we get to be what we’re not.
If you read it right, it’s a window into our collective soul.
In a world where promiscuity is frowned upon, especially among young women, dressing up as a slutty schoolgirl for a night is a reversal ritual. It’s an unconscious attempt to affirm the norm it’s mocking. Likewise, normally dignified, responsible suburban people get to dress up as the Simpsons or the Flintstones. People who fear that there are forces in the world over which they have no control pull on a superhero costume. And secular people, so used to living their lives in a mechanistic world with no interest in the spiritual or the supernatural, get to spend a night as witches and ghosts or vampires.
So when choosing your Halloween costume this week, ask yourself what cultural norms you’re violating. And rather than getting all judgmental and everything about the occultish elements of Halloween, or the waste of money, or whatever, just keep remembering this is one night where everyone is basically unconsciously affirming the opposite of the ghoulish, gothic, frivolous, cartoonish, silly costumes they’re wearing.
Halloween might just be the one night of the year our neighbors are telling us they want to live in a world of order not chaos, beauty not ugliness, loyalty not promiscuity, joy not fear, genuineness not silliness, and God not the devil.