A Complete History of the World in Halloween Costumes
1970: My father dresses me as Kaiser Wilhelm II, last monarch of the Second Reich. I have little say in this, as I am three at the time. This is an early example of Chekhov’s famous dictum, “If a German helmet from the First World War (you know, the one with the spike on top) is sitting in the basement in the first act, then it must inspire a Halloween costume by the third act.” There’s a picture, of course: a chubby Kewpie doll with painted-on mustache, struggling to keep his head upright under the weight of a war souvenir. My expression at least resembles the Kaiser’s when he finds out he’s lost the war.
1973: I am Satan, on the theory that it is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, though naturally I am unable to articulate this thought, as I am in the first grade. I am wearing a red tail, red horns and carrying the pitchfork. I am wearing a painted-on black mustache and goatee, which embarrasses me, as all make-up does, right through high school, thus sparing me from dressing up as Robert Smith. As I cavort in the elementary school parade I am targeting souls for later acquisition, though my red tights droop in a manner unbecoming to the Prince of Darkness.
1974: I am the Mummy. Short of having my tongue cut out and being buried alive, I insist on Karloffian authenticity and ask my parents to buy yards and yards of Ace bandages and literally wrap me up. My father, having produced an exact replica of the Kaiser’s bristling mustache, is happy to comply. My replication of Karloff’s shuffling walk (slower than a Romero zombie, faster than a… well, than an actual dead person) is incomparable. I am the Method hit of the second grade, and find that no one picks on me so long as I am utterly not myself. (This lesson, and the names of the capitals of all 50 states, represents the apex of my early academic career.)
1975: When not beheading plastic German toy soldiers with a shovel (in order to create a headless Nazi zombie army), I imagine myself a soldier in “The Good War,” but without the ironic quotes. My father, who spent the Korean War in a radio room in a Paris, still has his old army jacket. Once swallowed by this great olive cloak all I need is my non-spiked helmet and a toy .45 automatic so realistic that thirty years hence I could easily commit suicide by cop with it. I am ready for patrol.
No one thinks to mention that my Uncle Jim actually fought in the Battle of the Bulge until I am in my twenties. It is that sort of family; not the sort that doesn’t talk about the war so much as the sort that doesn’t talk about anything, except to look around the basement and wonder what’s become of that World War I helmet.
1977: I am, bizarrely, wearing a werewolf mask and a yellow hooded rain slicker. It is some kind of prescient old school monster/demented slasher mash-up. I laugh as my friend’s elaborate robot costume falls apart after the fourth house, and then stand around silent while I wait for him to run home and change into a football outfit.
1982: I am too old for trick-or-treating and resolve to play vampire and scare the kids — my cape pulled over my face, cackling sluggishly in a thick Lugosi accent as I hold out a bowl of mini-Snickers. But there are no kids. Urban myths about poisoned Halloween candy have destroyed the tradition of the trick, the treat. Not one case is ever documented in America of random poisonings of candy, though one father does try to kill his son for the insurance money by lacing a Pixy Stix with poison. I wait in vain all evening for trick-or-treaters, then throw away the candy in disgust, appalled at the waste of thirty dollars worth of arsenic.
1984: I am Sam Spade, a fedora one-size too big cocked on my head, my trenchcoat belted in classic Bogart-style. Of course, I fall in love with Pebbles, who, of course, only has eyes for Gilligan, thus following Chekhov’s dictum that characters from popular culture are always in love with the wrong person.
1986: I wear a suit and tie, walk around with a scythe, and hand out business cards that read G. REAPER Don’t Call Me, I’ll Call You. But I never call anyone, especially any girls, as I do not have their phone numbers.
1987: My best friend throws one of those parties with a No Costume, Absolutely No Admittance policy. Thus, I put on a black pea coat, black wrap-around sunglasses and black jeans, and go as the entire Velvet Underground. I am not admitted.
1993: I make good on a threat I’d been making for years by going to a party as Groucho Marx. Much like the Mummy, I am committed to the Full Marxy: painted-on mustache, cigar and—crucially—Method. I stay completely in character for the entire evening. My date soon wears the pained expression of Margaret Dumont, even though she is dressed as a “sexy pirate.” This costume brings me full circle, as Julius Marx created his persona initially as spoof on the ethnic stereotype of the German immigrant, many of whom wore spiked helmets and exclaimed “Dumkoff!” at any opportunity in post-war America.
1994: I am Special Agent Dale Van Helsing of the Federal Bureau of Vampire Destruction (known to freedom-loving patriots everywhere as the FBVD). I wear a suit, flash my badge and wave a cross around. I am unable, however, to dispatch either Anne Rice or the film adaptation of “Interview With a Vampire”; thus, this particular Halloween must be counted a failure.
1995: I am a Shipwrecked Millionaire: naval jacket, captain’s hat, ascot, cigarette holder and ice bucket of champagne, combined with shredded white pants and sandals. I am NOT Thurston Howell III, as I have given up the Method, and cannot do a Jim Backus impression. Stop asking.
1996: In my finest conceptual hour, I am a Ouija Board: a black jacket, with white vinyl letters and numbers placed on my back, and YES and NO running down each lapel. The indicator is worn over my heart; a black beret and skeleton gloves complete the ensemble. I return to the Method by declaring that I will only communicate via writing on a notepad for the length of the party. Someone bets me I can’t keep my mouth shut until midnight. I am forced to pay up at five minutes to twelve, after which dark forces flow through me and destroy everyone in the house in a frenzy of supernatural evil.
1997: I am Hades, Lord of the Underworld: a double-breasted black suit, a tie with skulls on it, and a black laurel wreath around my freshly shaven head. Since Hades is both the god of the dead and of riches, I decide this subdued corporate look is appropriate; I finish it off with gaudy fake rings on every finger. I also hand out mock business cards (Hades, Lord of the Underworld, Zero Styx Way). I get a few numbers, and ascribe this to the “bling.”
1998: My fiancée and I dress as poems, in a quest to see how many times we are forced to explain our costumes in a single evening. I am Wallace Stevens’ Emperor of Ice Cream: the naval jacket from the Shipwrecked Millionaire recycled into a Duke of Edinburgh-look, complete with a crimson sash and a crown that features ice cream cones. My fiancée is Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus, which entails looking like an accomplished corpse. Total number of explanations of our costumes: 53.
1999: I am a Jackson Pollack, until the fumes from dripping all of that paint over a thrift store suit begin to make me lightheaded. I switch to a Magritte: raincoat and bowler hat with a plastic green apple hanging in front of it on a wire. The apple bobs directly in front of my face, and within five minutes my eyes are crossed. Alcohol proves enormously effective in addressing this conceptual glitch.
2001: I am a Leonard Cohen song. It has been a very difficult year, and my famous blue raincoat is torn at the shoulder. Total number of explanations: 122.
2002: I find a varsity jacket from my high school in a thrift store, and proceed to dress as the sort of person in high school whom I despised. I embrace the Method once more, and offer tasty brews to “bros” all evening. By the end of the party, I find it very difficult to shed this character, thus proving Nietzsche’s dictum, “And if you gaze into the dude, the dude gazes into you.”
2003: I note a resurgence of trick-or-treaters, but do not attempt to frighten them (at least not as long as their parents are waiting for them at the curb). I wonder when precisely I adopted the costume I’ve been wearing every day besides Halloween, the mask that hides and reveals, the persona that inhabits the mirror. However, as this is four years before the premiere of “Mad Men,” I cannot compare myself to Don Draper and thus am thrown back on re-reading Chekhov.
2004 to present: I am a man wearing a funny hat.