Halloween Costumes by the NETHERWORLD Network

by on Dec.18, 2011, under Exclusive Haunted October Blogs

What are you supposed to be?

It’s a simple enough question, really. You hear it every year, when your homemade Ronald Reagan-as-a-rapper costume doesn’t go over so well, or the folks at the office Halloween dress-up party don’t get your whole Star-Trek-red-uniform-zombie idea. You tried – you had a unique idea and you were depending on the intuitive powers of those in your orbit to catch the joke. Oh well, there’s always next year.

But more to the point, what ARE you supposed to be? Is there a method behind the madness of Halloween costumes? A spark that ignited the masquerade craze flame? Where exactly did this notion come from, and what does dressing up say about us? To answer these questions, we have to dig way back in the history books, to where it all began…

The holiday of Halloween, taking place every October 31st (in case you didn’t already know!), is believed to have experienced its birth in the Celtic festival of Samhain. This marked the end of harvest, and the beginning of the “dark days” of autumn and winter. It was believed that around this time of year the mortal and supernatural worlds were closest to one another in proximity, and in order to ward off evil spirits large bonfires were lit. People would walk between bonfires with their livestock, believed to be a cleansing ritual, and the bones of slaughtered animals were thrown in. Sacrifices – possibly human in nature – were made to the gods in an effort to aid in this endeavor. Although most historians disagree that Samhain is the proper origin of Halloween, at the very least this lent influence to the evolving traditions of the holiday, paving the way for many of the customs we now embrace as part of this celebration.

Later, the Christian holy days of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, falling on November 1st and 2nd, paid tribute to the saints and recently deceased souls which had not yet ascended to heaven. It was believed that these spirits walked the earth until All Saints’ Day, and on All Hallows’ Eve – October 31st – the dead had one final opportunity for revenge on any who had wronged them in mortal life. In order to hide themselves from any such vengeful entities, potential victims would disguise themselves with masks and costumes.

The practice of donning a costume and knocking on doors for candy for the holiday appears to have begun around the fifteenth century in Western Europe, evolving into the late 1800’s when Scottish citizens would masquerade (known as guising) and visit homes with carved out turnips – not pumpkins – to receive cakes, fruit and money. All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day’ were celebrated with costume parades and parties, and while rural farmers celebrated the holiday as a fertility rite in the United Kingdom, their cosmopolitan counterparts in the cities took a more carnivalesque approach. It wasn’t until 1911 that guising hit North America, with children taking up costumes and trick-or-treating around the neighborhood in Kingston, Ontario.

Early Halloween costumes tended to reflect the pagan and gothic nature of the holiday, and for the most part were considered child’s play. Costumes traditionally featured spookier elements, depicting ghosts, witches, devils, skeletons and a variety of other supernatural icons, obviously influenced by the superstitious roots of the holiday itself. They were strictly homemade, until the 1930’s when companies like Ben Cooper, Inc. began to release manufactured costumes at the retail level, to capitalize on the increasing popularity of trick-or-treating in the United States. As the years progressed, the motif of costuming evolved to include historical figures and pop culture characters, and today it’s possible to find a Halloween costume depicting pretty much any aspect of modern life. Now knowing the original purpose of the disguise, you may want to be a bit more selective in your choice of costumes – you never know who an angry displaced spirit may be looking for.

Large retail chains now stock plenty of costumes and props every year as Halloween rolls around, featuring everything from children’s’ costumes to adult fashions to outfits designed for pets. Role-playing on the fan convention circuit has produced an entire generation of advanced costumers, who seem to make any day of the year Halloween with lavish self-produced ensembles that rival the best of Hollywood. Needless to say, this is one tradition that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

So next Halloween, when someone spots you in your cape and mask made of various Louisville Sluggers and asks “what are you supposed to be?”, instead of answering “Batman!” (get it?), look them square in the eye and reply “I’m hiding from an earthbound evil entity wishing to exact vengeance upon me”.

That’ll have them scratching their head!

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