Ethan Gilsdorf

Geek Pride

It's OK for kids to dress up evil for Halloween

Prohibiting scary costumes at Halloween? Ridiculous.

Posted Oct 30, 2009

A recent article in the New York Times ("Drop the Halloween Mask! It Might Scare Someone") reported how, "in some classrooms across the country, the interpretation of what is too scary - or offensive, gross or saddening - is now also leading to an abundance of caution and some prohibitions" on what kids can "be" at Halloween.

The story reproduced a memo from a principal at a Los Angeles school that outlined what was OK for kids to dress up as:

>They should not depict gangs or horror characters, or be scary.

>Masks are allowed only during the parade.

>Costumes may not demean any race, religion, nationality, handicapped condition or gender.

>No fake fingernails.

>No weapons, even fake ones.

>Shoes must be worn.

Weapons, gang depictions, and costumes making fun of race or ethnicity, et al, I get. Even shoes, I understand. But prohibiting fingernails, horror characters or anything scary? This is ridiculous.

The truth is that we need to tap into our scary sides. To be both scared and to frighten others. We need to know what it is to be freaked out, even to risk death (in a safe way), so we can understand what it is to be alive. We need to be confronted with evil and nastiness --- even if it is "play" --- so we can recalibrate what is means to be good. We need to play the villain --- be it Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West or Snidley Whiplash. Halloween is one of the few opportunities we have to encounter and inhabit these archetypal characters. We get to be "the baddie," if only for one night.

Sociologist Norbert Elias, author of The Civilizing Process, suggested that in our increasingly structured society, we must exert proper control over our emotions. In the "civilizing process" described by Elias, people don't get to flex our primal emotional muscles. So we have created acceptable arenas to blow off primal steam and experience adrenaline and danger --- even if real death has been removed. Elias called it "controlled decontrolling" of emotions. It's acceptable to bellow battle cries at football games, or hoot during rock concerts, or get drunk and crazy at Mardi Gras. Otherwise, we don't get to act out and act up.

Hence, the importance of Halloween, a holiday that not only lets us role-play, but connect us to the spirit world and the supernatural. The celebration has its roots in a festival of the dead: a time when a family honored its ancestors and invited them home but also were careful not the welcome the harmful spirits. Supposedly, by wearing of costumes and masks, and disguising oneself as a "bad" spirit, the evil forces were warded off.

But some adults (i.e. the ones protecting kids from scary masks at Halloween parties) think Freddy Krueger costumes and rotting zombie make-up will somehow harm kids. It's a fallacy. Gerard Jones, author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes and Make-Believe Violence, reminds us that fantasy violence and playground role-playing of scary stuff helps kids process anger and violent emotions in a controlled and safe fashion. Violent and scary entertainment can be good for kids --- and to demonize it can damage their emotional development. He also argues that children clearly get the difference between make-believe and reality.

So, educators and parents, let's not unduly limit what or who kids can be at Halloween. Yes, leave the AK-47s at home. But scary costumes are as old as Grimms Fairy Tales and haunted forests and evil step-mothers. Scary is good. And to be undead is to be alive.

Let me know what you think.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of the new travel memoir Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.