I must have been very young, because I was sleeping in the small, pale-purple bedroom, the dimmest room of our dark, light-eating house. That was the first room I slept in as a baby, when my bed still had fence railings on the sides. It lies at the heart of the ancient core of our house, one of the original rooms, occupied by generations of people who were not us. (It’s now my storage room, sealed away from the light behind doors with deadbolt locks, piled high with cases of my moldering books, the only room in which no human foot now walks.) When I was little, I remember calling it “the Spook Room” — for no real reason, except that it was so old and dark and quiet. I don’t think it was haunted, but if any room in our house should be, that’s the one I’d pick. The only negative memories I have of that room are nightmares of gorillas coming from the woods and standing over me, their sagittal crests brushing the ceiling.
Anyway, on the evening in question, I must have been taking a nap there. I remember my mom waking me up and saying, “There’s someone here to see you.” I opened my eyes, and standing beside my bed was the devil.
Yes, the devil: all red, with horns and a tail, a pitchfork, and a glittering, sequined red mask (at least that’s the way I remember it). A part of my mind screamed in horror at the notion that my mom was cheerfully handing me over to the devil.
But within a few seconds, I realized that the arch-fiend was my nextdoor neighbor Chris, wearing a Hallowe’en costume. (Chris, do you remember that?) That, I believe, is my earliest Hallowe’en memory.
We humans have always had a thing for disguising ourselves — for wearing clothing, paint, and/or masks that make us seem to be what we’re not — and we do it for all sorts of reasons. Probably the most ancient has to do with religious beliefs and practices. Shamans wore masks and became something more than the mysterious wise ones who lived in the caves up the slope. Dancers wore feathers and grasses and painted masks, and metamorphoses occurred as gods and spirits moved about the fires.
In European werewolf legends, the transformation from man to beast was often accomplished by a person putting on a wolf skin — donning the skin of a wolf and becoming a wolf. Or the strange, beautiful brides of fishermen would one day throw seal skins about their shoulders and return to their parents’ kingdoms under the sea.
We’ve talked before on this blog of Max in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. (It’s recently been made into a movie, I understand.) The book is built upon the fact that Max puts on his wolf suit and acts like a Wild Thing — to the disgruntlement of his mother — and thus begins his adventure into the realm of the Wild Things. It is a costume that launches it all.
I was thinking of the uses of costumes in works of literature and film. . . . The first that comes to mind, of course, is the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, in which Jem and Scout are dressed as agricultural products and begin a harrowing journey through a dark and deadly wood. And I thought of the movie A Perfect World, starring Kevin Costner, in which an armed fugitive (Costner) takes a young boy hostage, and the two develop an unlikely friendship during their few days on the run, when they journey through the borders of “a perfect world” — a fantastic journey enhanced by the boy (Philip)’s stealing of a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume, which he wears constantly. The costume sets him free, in a way: Philip, like Max, becomes something he wants to be; he enters a realm of experience beyond the usual.
When I was very young, I remember coming home with my parents late on a dark, windy night. For some reason, the talk turned to “burglars” who might be hiding in the trees. I couldn’t rest until I’d checked out all our trees with a flashlight. To enable myself to do this, I put on what I called my “Willer-de-Woost” costume. (I think the name came from the Uncle Remus/Br’er Rabbit stories — that was what those characters called a will-o’-the-wisp.) My Willer-de-Woost costume involved a silver hardhat, goggles, and heavy gauntlets, which made manipulating the flashlight very difficult. (The goggles were tinted and made seeing difficult, especially at night. I guess the hardhat didn’t hinder me much.) My dad forever after claimed I said, “If there are burglars, I’ll scare the h*ll out of ’em!” — but I don’t remember saying that. But I do remember that the costume gave me the courage to prowl all through our dark, windy yard, shining my light up into every tree. I was more powerful than my ordinary self: I was the Willer-de-Woost!
Do you remember the excitement of Hallowe’en costumes? I remember having that electric, jittery thrill in my stomach when I contemplated how cool it was going to be to wear my costume. (The actual experience of wearing the costume was almost always sweaty, confining, awkward, and uncomfortable; but that was all forgotten well before the next year rolled around.) Mom laughed in later years regarding how, at my insistence, we always had to start on Hallowe’en in the middle of the summer — thinking of ideas, planning just how we were going to engineer the costume, and visiting junk shops and second-hand clothing stores, scouting for materials.
I won’t bore you with the details, but here’s a list of all my costumes that I can remember (I’m probably leaving some out):
ape soldier (from The Planet of the Apes)
Sinbad (the sailor, not. . . .)
a dragon (My mom was a knight, fighting me — a giant knight and a little green dragon.)
the shark from Jaws (My neighbor Randy was Brody, wearing a sandwich-board Orca boat.)
a Skull-Bearer (from The Sword of Shannara)
(and as an adult, after coming to Japan) Eliot Ness, a native American, a scarecrow, a silver man, a hideous bird-creature, the Terminator, Mr. Spock, and Loft [a character of mine from a work in progress]
But I think my very best costume when I was a kid was an amazing Three-Legged Man. We had an odd, jointed stick lying around our house. I suppose it was originally something a tailor would use, because it was the length of a (smallish) human leg, with a rectangular “foot” board attached at the bottom. This stick had a perfect, functional knee-joint in the middle. I got two identical pairs of pants and put one on normally. Then I put my right leg into the left leg of the other pair, so that I had a spare, empty pants-leg dangling at my right side. Into this leg we inserted the stick and padded it, so that the pants were filled out, and I found three ambiguous shoes to put on my three feet. I kept my right arm inside my shirt and down along my side to hold onto the top end of the fake leg. Then we padded out the right arm of my shirt, and I had gloves on my real hand and the fake hand. I wore a rain poncho that hung down to just above my knees, so no one could see what was happening with the waists of the pants. Then I learned to walk convincingly, putting my middle leg forward, then bringing my two outer legs forward for the next step, and so on. The effect was quite unsettling. People stared long and hard, trying to figure out which leg was the fake.
So . . . I guess there are two possible springboards for discussion:
1.) Are there other uses of costumes in books, movies, or stories that we should talk about? Why are those uses memorable and effective?
2.) Do you have any costume stories? Something you wore, perhaps, or something you helped design for your kids? Did it work? Was it a disaster?
Or anything else on the topic of costumes is quite welcome. Ooh, here’s one: what’s the scariest mask you’ve ever seen?
Meanwhile, let’s not yet abandon last week’s post! It’s still wide open — let’s keep using those great lines in scary paragraphs or scenes! And thank you to everyone who has written in!
Let’s close out with a few lines from my story “The Bone Man” (Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2007):
“Black bushes, spreading trees — there seemed more of them at night, with glowing plastic lanterns strung among the last brittle leaves: lanterns in the shapes of jack-o’-lanterns, white ghosts, green-faced witches. (Whoever came up with the idea that a witch should have a green face?) It was dark ahead of him, though fire still hung in the vanished sun’s wake. Slowly the sky’s lavender changed to a deep blue, and stars glittered.
All around him, it was as if veils dropped away, and Conlin was walking back into the streets of his childhood. Here, under the breeze-shivery maples and oaks slouching toward cold, it was no longer the age of the Internet and little phones in your pocket that took pictures and movies; it seemed more the era when cars had lock-levers like golf tees, phones had round dials, and TVs were controlled by big, stubborn knobs on the front. Conlin passed over sidewalks that veered to accommodate trees, some concrete sections pushed up into humps by the roots. Trees owned these prairie towns, he mused: trees’ crowns were crossbeams above; their roots shot far into the earth and spread beyond the last houses; their trunks were spikes that held the community to the land.
. . .
Then, with a sound like an approaching stampede, costumed children exploded onto the scene.”