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Past present.

The Creepy Clown and Naughty Nurse — Halloween Costumes: Revelatory, and Perverse

Homemade Halloween costumes, circa 1929
Homemade Halloween costumes, circa 1929

Any writer exploring the evolution of the Halloween costume could end up writing a book. From the homemade masks of children in the early twentieth century to the proliferation of sexy get-ups that line the walls at party stores in this, our new millennium, Halloween costumes always express something of the psychology of the wearer, and the times in which they live.

Tracing its origins back centuries to a pre-Christian Celtic festival celebrated in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany and Cornwall, Samhain — appropriated by the Church and given a sanitized and saintly moniker of “All Hallow’s Eve” — found celebrants both mumming and guising as early as the sixteenth century. These mummers / revelers went house-to-house in costume (or in disguise), reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. But the costumes were simple — rural and animal in nature.

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Halloween costume parties became more prevalent. But when the celebrations began to get too out-of-hand for Victorian sensibilities, the raucous parties for adults soon transformed into a more acceptable playful excursion deemed only appropriate for children.

Kids at a Halloween party in the 1950s
Kids at a Halloween party in the 1950s

By the early twentieth century, most of the traditions we associate with children going door to door for treats were well in place. Early on, their costumes were handmade: exaggerated papier-mâché faces, harlequins, and all manner of animals — from ravenous wolves to cute fuzzy bunnies. By the nineteen-fifties, mass-produced costumes made of plastic allowed kids to now be Bugs Bunny (not just any rabbit), or eye-patched pirates and red devils as in the picture at right.

An early twentieth century creepy clown
An early twentieth century creepy clown

Still, adults couldn’t resist the masquerade. Hundreds of photos from the early twentieth century show some disturbing Halloween costumes, like the creepy clown shown to the left.

Many psychologists have speculated that the reason both children and adults alike love dressing up is that — no surprise — a costume allows us to escape ourselves, and express a side of our personality that we can’t show in polite society. For children, it’s part of the act of imaginative play.

For adults, however, there may be more going on than just wanting to have some fun. Costumes can reveal much about our nature.

It’s an observation best made by Mark Griffiths, a psychologist writing in Psychology Today, when he paraphrases a colleague’s take on the matter; he writes that “psychotherapist Joyce Matter… examined whether fancy dress costumes bring out a person’s alter ego (or as she termed it, an individual’s “shadow side”).” This Jungian shadow doesn’t have to be dark and dangerous as the name implies. As Griffiths puts it: “I have come to believe the shadow side is not necessarily dormant characteristics that are negative—they often contain positive aspects of self which we have not been free to embody. Once we honor and integrate them, they can become powerful strengths.”

Those who feel physically weak might dress as Superman. A devout Christian might entertain being the Devil for an evening. Some cultural theorists refer to such disguises as “costumes against type.” As to the gory and grotesque? Perhaps it’s a way of dealing with one’s own mortality, or being able to scare and be scared without the threat of real physical harm — or even death itself.

The Naughty Nurse
The Naughty Nurse

How then, though, do we account for a more recent phenomena that Elizabeth Greer, author of the paper The Rise of Slut-o-ween, calls, not surprisingly, “slutoween”? Placed in the context of a psychological need to be free to embody an aspect of self that we otherwise keep hidden the other 364 days of the year, sexy costumes — the sexy nurse, the sexy cop, etc. — are a way to adopt a sexual persona that, in theory, won’t carry the label of “slut” beyond the one day societally allowed for being perceived as a sexual object, or sexually uninhibited.

“You’re not worried about being judged,” says Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and host of “The Power of Different” podcast, recently interviewed by Medical Daily. “You get attention you unconsciously or consciously want.”

Costumes always draw attention. And this desire to be seen as someone different, mysterious, or uninhibited is not confined to Halloween.  For centuries, there have been masquerade balls. There’s Mardi Gras. There are LGBTQ events where the donning of costume is an expression of identity. And most recently, there is the now multi-million dollar phenomenon of CosPlay — fueled by comic and horror conventions around the world (most notably, once every year in San Diego). CosPlayers take costuming to the next level: spending months in preparation, and creating social media celebrities. Over half a million people alone belong to just one of the many groups on Facebook.

Complications in costuming come, however, when trends like “slutoween” spill over into costumes for tweens (and even younger children) — sending quite disturbing messages to young girls that growing up means dressing up like a sexual object.

Even worse are situations when costumes become outright racist.

Racism in early 20th century Halloween costumes
Racism in early 20th century Halloween costumes

Blackface in Halloween costumes dates all the way back to the nineteenth century. And while one would think we now live in more enlightened times, offensive stereotypes of minorities are evident in many a homemade costume. About a decade ago, the NY Times covered a controversial Halloween costume contest held at an immigration enforcement office party where a white agency employee “wore a dreadlock wig, what looked like a prison jumpsuit and black face paint.” One would think we left this kind of ugliness behind, but, of course, when even our television news personalities seem to defend its history (if not its use), one can begin to see that costumes have had, and continue to have a dark side — independent of the Jungian shadow. There’s a bit of the sinister in some costumes, and it’s not the kind of sinister that accompanies cheap and silly scares.

Batwoman cosplay (cosplayer unknown)
Batwoman cosplay (cosplayer unknown)

When all is said and done, if a costume — be it Batman or a sexy nurse (or a sexy Batwoman for that matter [who, not to overly complicate things, happens to be a kick-ass lesbian in the comics]) — empowers the wearer to express healthy aspects of self that are otherwise kept down in order to survive the everyday “normal” world, all the better.

The freedom to be someone else by putting on a costume — if only at Halloween — can indeed satisfy our shadow side. More than the imaginative play of a child, it can be an act of revelation.

Or just plain fun.

Not Dead, Yet Buried

"The Premature Burial" by Harry Clarke, 1919.
Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Premature Burial” by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), published in 1919.

Taphephobia. Greek for “fear of the grave.” With science and medicine such as it was for hundreds of years, it was not uncommon for men and women — rich and poor, educated or not, famous, infamous, or otherwise —to be afraid of being entombed alive. On his deathbed, George Washington apparently told his secretary that “”I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.” Spoiler: he did die, and was buried at Mount Vernon in 1799. He was not later found to have bloodied his fingers by scratching at his coffin or chewing the tips for basic sustenance. He did not become one of the undead (though undoubtedly, someone is right now working on a novel to that effect). But he did have a very real fear that many shared in the 18th and 19th centuries: being buried alive.

The earliest known written reference of a premature burial comes from Pliny the Elder in his Natural History of 77 AD. In a chapter entitled “Persons Who Have Come to Live Again After Being Laid Out for Burial,” Pliny recounts tales of people waking up after being declared dead. Fast forward to the 14th century, and there’s the story of philosopher John Duns Scotus, reportedly found outside his coffin with bloodied hands. Three hundred years later, and European rationalists would be stymied by a vampire craze — fueled by bloody bodies of exhumed corpses that were said to run amok at night and plague their families. But one need only Google for a few minutes to find modern cases of premature burial. As recently as just a few short months ago, a Brazilian woman claims to have been buried alive, spending 11 days trying to get out of her coffin.

Popularity of his tale aside, there is no proof in his letters or other writings that Poe, himself, was afraid of Premature Burial

Curiously, though, the most widespread cultural obsession with being buried alive is found in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most famously captured in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Premature Burial (1844) — where (spoiler) the real fear comes from an overactive imagination or fevered dream — the panic and paranoia felt by the 18th and 19th century taphephobe can, in many ways, be blamed on a distrust of one’s doctor(s) to properly certify death, and an all-too-ready cadre of family, friends, and neighbors who were quick to get the body into the grave — mostly, for fear of spreading disease.

It is the latter that may explain some of the vampire hysteria that began in eastern Europe and spread west as far as Austria and Germany in the 1700s.  As early as the 1670s, doctors wrote treatises about ‘grave eating’ where bodies were exhumed and found to have eaten their own shrouds or feasted on their own fingers. Bubonic plague lasted until as late as 1750, and it is understandable that villages throughout Europe feared that dead bodies could spread disease. Folklore of the vampire from Eastern Europe coupled with writers spreading the tale of Arnold Paole in Germany in 1732 added fuel to the fire that undead bodies, rising from their graves, could spread a disease, too.

Symptoms of tuberculosis, for example — light-sensitive eyes, pale skin, low body heat, coughing up blood — could easily be misconstrued as victimization by vampires. Many of those who passed from such a disease would have been buried in haste. As others fell victim, and a vampire suspected, exhumation seemed logical. Kill the vampire and prevent the spread of the disease. When the body — due to the natural bloating, bubbling of bodily fluids, and shrinkage of the skin we now know are associated with decomposition  — was exhumed, it must have been a shock. To the superstitious, the undead were blamed. To the rational, there was suspicion of accidental premature burial. To some, both were a possibility. Physicians studying this so-called vampire epidemic of the eighteenth century wrote over a dozen articles in professional journals about the subject, along with numerous treatises. In some parts of Europe, there was widespread panic that vampirism would spread much like the plague.

It was modern-day folklorist Paul Barber — in his seminal Vampires, Burial, and Death — who most effectively argued that the incidence of presumed vampirism or being burial alive has been overestimated, and that the normal effects of decomposition are mistaken for signs of life. And as the Enlightenment gave way to more scientific explanations of all things related to death, it was serious medical doctors, not priests or doctors of philosophy, who were looked to as authorities on death and disease.

But did medical doctors sometimes get it wrong? Were certified deaths sometimes the result of a doctor not noticing a faint heartbeat or weakened breath? Unlikely. But as the superstitions of the eighteenth century gave way to the more scientific approaches to death of the nineteenth, it’s not without reason that people began to — and rightfully so — fear doctors. After all, it was quacks like Moore Russell Fletcher, M.D. who published as late as 1884 his “One Thousand Persons Buried Alive by Their Best Friends”, a pamphlet placed inside the back of a textbook on common ailments and diagnoses: Our Home Doctor. Books like these contributed to the paranoia that being buried alive was a real possibility (really, “one thousand persons”!).

Outbreaks of Cholera in the mid to late nineteenth century — such as that in and around 1854 when Antoine Wiertz painted his ‘L’Inhumation Precipitee’ (the work that appears in the feature section of this post) — did much to fuel the fire of ignorance and fear.One Thousand Person Buried Alive by Their Best Friends

Such fear led to the formation of some curious clubs — among them, The London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial, founded by Dr. William Tebb of Manchester (who also wrote a book on the subject, available in its entirety, here). His 1896 treatise is definitely a far more credible examination of the possible causes of, and ways to avoid premature burial than Fletcher’s (again, one thousand persons???); at nearly 400 pages, Tebb’s book is quite comprehensive, leading one to believe that the phenomenon was quite prevalent and quite real as the nineteenth century came to a close. Of course, modern-day scholars say it wasn’t, but that doesn’t make the beliefs any less potent.

Ardent beliefs certainly explain the prevalence of devices invented by enterprising men to combat premature burial at its source — from within the grave itself.

The first recorded of these, a safety coffin, was ordered by Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick in 1792. It was equipped with keys to open the coffin and, should there be one, the mausoleum door. There was even a window for light, and an air tube.

Grave Contraption, 1882
Device for Indicating Life in Buried Persons, 1882

In 1829, Johann Taberger created a bell system that had ropes attached to the body so any slight movement would alert night watchman in the cemetery. In 1868, Franz Vester revealed his “Burial Case” — a coffin which included a tube for a curious passerby to see the face of the corpse. A nobleman, Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, patented a coffin in 1897. His coffin also detected movement, and would open a tube to supply air along with not only ringing bells but also raising a flag. Yet, despite the effort put in to making these devices, there’s no evidence that they ever actually saved anyone’s life.

Buried (2010)

This is not to say that people were no prematurely buried. Many an article online documents case after case in the nineteenth AND twentieth centuries. Authors and filmmakers a century after Poe wrote his seminal tale continue to fan the flames of this fear of being placed alive in one’s grave. There was even a most effective (and well reviewed) modern thriller, 2010’s Buried, that made the fear of live burial very much a possibility in this, the twenty-first century.

But is it all fiction? Actual or embellished, stories like the aforementioned Brazilian keep alive (pun intended) the notion that premature burial, even in the age of modern medicine, is still a possibility.