It doesn’t take a social scientist to recognize that a Halloween costume is rarely just that. It’s not random. People must select, on some basis, what they will wear for Halloween. No where was this phenomenon more on display that at the annual Halloween festivities in West Hollywood, probably the single best attended event in the city (with perhaps Pride in June as a close competitor). In the gay world of WeHo last night (which by the way was at least 60% straight), Halloween was a High Holiday and the most common costume was that of Robin, sidekick to Batman. I also saw couples having fun with the concept of “twinning” – both dressing up as prisoners, both as cave men and, in one case, both dressing up as zombies with ‘sex for brains.’ There were some couples that had related but opposite costumes, such as Devil with Angel, Cop with Criminal, Master with Slave, etc. One wonders if these are the accurate psychic representations of the relationship or if they are toying with inhabiting the opposite role for a night (a friend told me he’d once dressed up as a slave to a dominatrix when in fact he held all the power in the relationship). But either way, the selection of the costume means something about who you are and your relationship to your self and others (Know that whenever you are at a Halloween function, psychologists and artists are having a lot of fun looking into your subconscious). Some people are relieved from the stress of choosing to represent themselves as an individual and dress up as whole groups – there was one group of friends that dressed up as the Scooby Doo clan and another group that all dressed up as Waldo from the ‘Where’s Waldo?’ posters. Then, there are those that create or select something that is their costume alone – whether a witch or zombie or fairy or something else of their own creation (inspired by my existentialism class, I wore a black suit, black shirt, red tie, black mask, carried my textbook and went as an ‘Existential Messenger of Death’). And, of course, there are those that choose to wear no costume at all, which in and of itself is another interesting choice. You cannot say nothing about yourself on Halloween, like it or not.
That’s what is truly eerie about Halloween – it’s an opportunity to reflect unseen layers of our psyche for ourselves and others to see. But this potentiality is so powerful that the herd instinct in us rises up to prevent Halloween from its illuminative potential and turns it into the most mundane and meaningless holiday of them all. It starts out as a curious conundrum for the psyche and turns into a boozing mass of conformists confronted with one makeshift hot dog stand after another, all selling the same thing.
There’s an argument to be made that a Halloween costume reveals our own ExistenZ’s struggle to express itself. Karl Jaspers describes ExistenZ as the being inside that fights against “mundane being.” From my understanding, it’s the authentic, transcendent self that takes its cues not from the world and the demands of the world, but from its own essence (a force for the purposes of my movie that I will describe as “Inside-Out”). Maybe it’s the tricky psychic force within that inspires you to dress up as Peter Pan for Halloween in the midst of your Puer Aeternus complex (so you might get a clue). But another powerful force is at work on Halloween. Nietzsche and a host of others identified the concept of a “herd instinct” which some, like Martin Heidegger, believe also exists in some form within each individual whether they are currently engaging with a herd or sitting by themselves (a force for the purposes of my movie that I will describe as “Outside-In”). Maybe it’s the powerful messaging you receive to be like your peers that compels you to gather en masse, drink, have fun and observe the unspoken social contract of what it means to enjoy a Halloween festival.
Heidegger argues that the primal potentialities of the soul are “leveled down” by idle talk and concerns of people on a “group level.” An individual’s instinct to subject itself to the mentality of the herd mitigates the fear of that person’s inward ExistenZ potential…and its impermanence. The herd instinct most fears death. It is something that is processed on a group level that protects the group from processing impermanence on a soul level. The herd tells you what to do when death occurs, but it allows you to avoid associating it with your own eventuality. As Heidegger explains, death happens, but in a strange way it doesn’t happen to you when you’re in the herd. It might sound nice to be protected from the reality of death, but the herd also protects you from considering how your own death might change – and even liberate – your life with all its potential.
Now, back to Halloween…so just when your ExistenZ bubbles up to the surface and demands you choose a ridiculous costume because it desperately wants to show you something about yourself that you simply can’t see, the herd instinct swells with its zombie-like message from the outside: drink, drink more, friends, idle talk, bullshit, HOT DOGS!, other friends, drink, sex, sex, sex, sleep. It is a slumber that costs the transcendent lesson that the ExistenZ made available through the selection of the costume in the first place. It is a slumber that keeps at bay ExistenZ and the reality of our own death…during a holiday that supposedly highlights it.
And so I walked into West Hollywood last night as the “Existential Messenger of Death,” selecting someone in the crowd, usually someone not wearing a costume, that I would then stealthily approach and say, “Happy Last Halloween. End of Days is here. You have been Chosen.” Then, I would walk away, just slowly enough to see either a mocking insolence or disturbed agitation register on their face.
I saw it as my responsibility to inject the idea of Death back into Halloween. People deserve some Dread. Not just because death is part of Halloween, but because feeling the angst of death is the best hope that an individual will throw off their herd mentality and turn towards the inner potential waiting for them to create a uniquely amazing life.
My movie is currently titled, “Inside-Out, Outside-In.” But when you see it (sometime in 2014 with any luck) I hope it might earn the reputation of, “Existential Messenger of Death.”
This essay is the third in a series on the themes of “Inside-Out, Outside-In.” The first two are available on the site and include, “Is Cool cool? Reflections on the New Religion” and “Mutual Self-Interest vs. Love (and why Dr. Phil and Oprah have it wrong).”