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Transformation, Transcendence, and Realization: The Spirit of Halloween Has a Greater Impact Than We Might Think

October 29, 2021

In just a scant few days, the lot of us will be dressing decidedly unlike ourselves: as ghosts, vampires, mythological figures, and cultural icons. We might watch a scaaaary movie – the kind with a soulless, masked fiend who won’t give up until he’s plunged an axe into some teenager’s head. Or a sentimental one like “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” if we’re not the blood, guts, and night-terrors types. The children in our lives will undoubtedly beg us to take them to one of those haunted houses or corn mazes that pop up around this time of year – and we’ll pretend to be above all the jump scares. At the very least, we’ll settle in, and enjoy some crisp, fall weather, complete with a bit of moon, some howling wind, and fistfuls of candy.

As you may have inferred already, Halloween holds a special place in my heart. It’s spiritual, whimsical, a little naughty, romantic, commemoratory, and creative; a loaded hot fudge sundae of all the things I love. Plus, its aesthetic pretty much lasts for a whole season. I know at our house, we start to set the pumpkins on our porch around end of September, and add some spooky elements to the yard no later than October 1. Those might come down a few days into November, but the pumpkins stay put until December 1, for sure.

That’s not a real spider

But there are some elements of Halloween that have historically continued all year long at Chez Dougherty. Namely, the costumes and make-up part.

Transformation has always been a theme in our family, a phenomenon that has long outlasted those halcyon days when our children were little – the “I want to wear a princess outfit every day” and “Why can’t I go to school wearing a hat and have a whip tucked into my belt?” years, when our brood looked like some insane mash-up of a Renaissance fair and The Village People.

She wore this outfit every day for almost a year
Ditto with the Indiana Jones get-up

For the most part, we took for granted our children’s propensity to indulge in comically preposterous versions of themselves, even when to outside eyes they were beginning to look a little old for all of this dress-up business. With a snicker and a shrug, we fed them a steady diet of the accoutrements they felt were essential to their persistent quest for transformation: the special fx make-up kits, the wig collections, the colored contact lenses (in red, white, black, spiral – yes there is such a thing as spiral and it’s creepy as hell), the “man of the wilderness” accessories (going well beyond clothes and camping equipment, to include axes, fire-starters, bows and arrows, and other stuff I’m not willing to put in print), the vintage military uniforms, the second-hand clothing stores and online boutiques dedicated to ancient couture. The wild, wacky, beautiful, frightening, hideous, overtly feminine, and unapologetically masculine all merged and disjoined kaleidoscopically at our house.

Yet it’s only recently that my husband and I have fully come to realize what a big part of our family life involved this kind of play, and the effect it’s had on how our kids perceive themselves, and have grown into their own.

It was just last week, as a matter of fact, that I had a revelation as I started putting together a few photos of Halloweens past. It’s the first year that we’ll have no active trick-or-treaters in our house, and I wanted to take a little trip down memory lane. And while I knew that my kids had always been great at creating smart and hilarious Halloween costumes, and that they could be, shall we say, sartorially eccentric at times, I was struck by just how many costume and make-up shots we’d collected over the years. Ones that had nothing to do with Halloween at all, and were snapped pretty much on any old Tuesday.

As I arranged the pictures in chronological order, I started to see patterns emerge. Elements of style that our kids had built all on their own, on their terms; ones that were reflective not of poses meant to obscure who they were on the inside, but rather, bring it out.

Ensemble after ensemble enabled our children to see themselves in the best possible light…

Our son in vintage coat and tails during our trip to Prague.

Or invited them to delve into their darkest fears…

Beaten-up make-up perfected at theater camp

I was moved by how psychological many of these imaginings were, aiming to mess with perceptions, and uncover hidden emotions. The way they revealed longings, conflicts, and ways in which our children may have felt misunderstood.

Josie two-face

At times, I recognized them crying out to be seen as how they hoped to be, or would be, if allowed to exhibit their true selves; young men or women capable of heroism and daring-do, even when it went against the grain of what their friends were dreaming for their own lives.

Our son at 12, wearing his grandfather’s World War II Marine Corps uniform

Their costuming played with class, sex appeal, moral and ethical dilemmas, as they explored character traits and careers, trying on aspects of their personalities that might trend towards the dangerous, the alluring, the disruptive.

blonde bombshells

But what hit me hardest, took my breath away, was how over time, they each developed their own singularities, picking and choosing from years of envisaging and creating, until they found what fit. What helped them stand apart in a crowd, or just hold their own in our boisterous family. What made them fit in, too, becoming a unique puzzle piece in a larger picture filled with peers, friends, cousins, sisters, and brothers.

How fantasy became reality.

The man of adventure and wilderness, the smart sophisticate, the artist lost in her thoughts and her world, now stand in relief next to the older photographs of their burgeoning selves. I can see the pieces were there all along, and were, perhaps, inevitable from the start.

From → family

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