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)

Cornelius (ditto)

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 gorilla

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.”


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23 Responses to “Masquerade”

  1. Chris Says:

    Strangely enough I _do_ remember that initial encounter, I think. I do remember one early time I was introduced to you and I do recall it was near a holiday, so hallowe’en was just as likely. I do not recall the costume. (I am two years older than Fred).

    As for interesting costumes the most “effective” (ie the costume that got the most after-party comments going on for nearly a year) was one in which I went to a party armed with a stack of “Hello, My Name is…” tags which I had pre-filled in with various people/items etc. And throughout the evening at the party I was at I simply just occasionally put on a new one and walked around.

    People kept talking to me about that for months afterward.

    But one other guy at the party actually got my vote as best…he came dressed as himself and claimed to be an “off-duty astronaut”. That is still one of my favorites.

    I would dearly love to hide who I am at times, but I don’t seem to be able to do it well, so I tend to avoid overt costumes.

  2. Daylily Says:

    Of all the words in the English language, the word “costume” is the one that used to strike the most fear into my heart. For I am a mother of two, and I do not sew (except for mending) unless under great duress. I finally figured out how to solve the problem. Buy a cloth costume your child loves and buy it large. So my daughter was a Halloween dragon for three years and a cat for three years after that. She was happy with that. Plus these costumes served for those occasions when teachers called for the children to come to school dressed as book characters. IIRC, we picked the books to go with the costumes. 🙂 I am happy that my children are grown up, so that I no longer have to fear the word c-c-c-costume!

  3. Marquee Movies Says:

    When my students ask me what I’m going to be for Halloween, I reply, “Taller.” My favorite costume idea is one I got from my all-time favorite TV show, Mystery Science Theatre 3000. You wear a maroon sweatshirt, and glue popcorn, crushed Milk Duds, a straw wrapper, and a piece of an old napkin, and go as the floor of a movie theatre.

  4. Chris Says:

    One of the things Fred and I used to marvel at was the store-costumes available to children. Even as children we were amazed that, say, Frankenstein would not only look like Frankenstein but he’d wear a shirt that said in loud, garish colors: “FRANKENSTEIN!” along with graphics of himself doing things.

    It often inspires me to make a shirt with “CHRIS!” on it along with a picture of me doing something particularly manly and robust and action-packed. Possibly with a body that doesn’t in any way match my own pasty white blobby self.

  5. Catherine Says:

    One of the first costumes that I remember was a princess outfit — a plain purple dress with long sleeves that had an elastic gather at the elbows; and a conical hat. The hat was a disaster because it was soft fabric and hung down my back like the stocking caps Rerun wears on his mother’s bicycle in Peanuts. Well, so we got rid of the hat. But I kept wearing that purple dress whenever I could . . . I think until I was ten or eleven. (It was large on me at six or seven, and small on me at the end.) (See, Daylily, if I had actually worn it on Hallowe’en I would have been following your ideas exactly!) Anyway, when I put on that dress I was a princess, pure and simple, though the shiny purple was getting dull and there were brown spots suspiciously like grass stains all over it. I had a lot of fun in that outfit. About the time I started to outgrow it my sister took over. She put on the dress and she was the prince. Strangely enough, we never questioned the gender shift on the outfit.

    Two other tidbits. Before I was really old enough to choose a costume my family decided I’d be a goat. We got a mask at the store and I wore my wool-lined brown coat inside out. I remember the store was a Hallowe’en store or something; at the counter there was a fountain that consisted of a skull in a basin, and from the skull’s eyesockets dripped this red liquid. It was crying blood. I was alternately terrified and sorry for the poor skull that he was so sad. Anyway, for whatever reason the goat mask also terrified me in and of itself. I didn’t scare anyone but myself!

    The other tidbit is sort of the antithesis to the whole post. I’m sharing it for amusement quality as I think the post is generally very true. But my dear convention-breaking sister doesn’t always need a costume. She used to play she was a pastor, reading from Richard Scarry as though it were Scripture and “preaching” upon it. I thought I would be a nice big sister and give her some props. I made her a stole like Lutheran pastors wear, and also a banner that she could hang on the hearth to pretend it was a church. She used the banner sometimes, but never the stole . . . (the stole, incidentally, was made from an old pair of jeans decorated with sharpies and bits of cloth glued in a sort of appliqué design; the banner was the same thing, only made of an old cloth diaper!)

  6. HippieChild Says:

    Halloween was the most celebrated holiday in our home. My hippie-artist parents loved to create something out of nothing and there was only one rule; you could not spend a dime. My eccentric father loved to shock….and so he would use his talents to do just that every year at the church Halloween party. When we were all seated for a spaghetti meal, he would make his grand entrance!

    The year that stands out most for me was just after I’d graduated from high school and had decided to bring my new boy friend to the party. I had not yet introduced him to my family because of our different religious backgrounds. As I ate my spaghetti, I anticipated my fathers costume, but nothing could have prepared me for “who” entered the room that night…my fathers tall hat, made from white cardboard, was decorated and cut with such detail. His long robes and make-up made it all look so real. As he walked up to me, he held out his red jeweled hand, and then he had my boyfriend (who was a devout catholic) kiss his ring….HE WAS THE POPE!

    The next years costume was also memorable! My vegan-marathon running father, weighing all of 120lbs….shaved his head and donned only a white wrap and home-made round wire glasses. No detail was overlooked; his make-up created the perfect skin tone, his hands were clasped in prayer position as he bowed humbly to everyone….he WAS Gandhi!

    Though embarrassing at times, I admire my fathers dedication to art and costume. He showed me you can change who you are if only for a few hours. With a costume we can become beautiful or brave, ugly or terrifying….we are not confined to how others see us….we can be anything we want. Though I have spent many years rebelling against my parents way of life, there must be something in me that wants to connect to it. My costume of choice has always been a hippie or a gypsy. Perhaps that’s the part of me that doesn’t dare to be seen, except for every October 31st.

    • Jedibabe Says:

      HippieChild, I can SO see your dad doing that!! I bet he was hilarious. And I bet he was the best wanna-be Ghandi ever! So good to see you post on here- it’s about time!

  7. I love Oct/Nov Says:

    In our (Fred, Chris and I, along with a few scattered loggers-on) town, Trick-or-Treat was held on consecutive nights for several decades. That way you could go out one night and then stay home and see everyone else’s costumes the other evening. The real trick was deciding which night to risk going out (and perhaps missing many friends, who came to your house only to find you gone). Do any other T-villians remember it that way?

    Fred ALWAYS had the BEST costume in elementary school. His C-3PO was a construction of large paint cans, if I recall correctly, all strung together and painted … OK Fred, fill us all in about it! I remember he and Randy were once Sherlock Holmes and Watson, if memory is serving me correctly.

    My favorite costumes have come as an adult. Last year I made enormous placards, one on the front and one behind me, that draped over my shoulder. I thus went to our parish party as “St. Patrick’s Place”, in all respects the title deed for Pennsylvania Ave. from Monopoly, complete with green stripe. In place of “Rent” or “With One House … With Two Houses …” the card said “Tithe” and “With one sacrament, With two sacraments …” And on back, rather than Mortage, it said “Diosecean Appeal”. The parents howled; the kids mostly failed to get the humor.

    However, 2007 was my greatest triumph. Dressed in overalls and a genuine grey/white engineers hat, I carried a lantern and pulled behind me three wooden boxcars, all correctly painted and the size of milk crates, saying “AND” “BUT” and “OR”… yes, I was CONJUNCTION JUNCTION! And I had a blast.

    That (07) was the year the 2nd and 4th grade teachers at St. Pats, Molly and Jennifer, dressed as the “yip-yips” from Sesame Street (google them under google images if you dont know the yip-yips) It was hilarious!!!

    I have not yet decided for this year, which means disaster is certain …

  8. Elizabeth Says:

    My mother was always nervous about Halloween. She never came right out and said it was a Satanic holiday, but we were *never* allowed to wear devil or witch or ghost costumes. We could go trick-or-treating, though, and my mom would make what she felt were appropriate costumes for us.

    The costume which sticks out most in my mind was our Care Bear costumes. (My sister and I were of the generation when Care Bears first exploded onto the scene.) We had a blue Care Bear costume and a pink Care Bear costume. My mother had made the giant (really giant) soft heads of the Care Bear, and a white pillow with the appropriate Care Bear symbol on it. Then we’d wear the sweats outfits (this was the 80s, so matching sweatshirts and sweatpants were in) and parade through the neighborhood spreading peace and joy and saccharine in exchange for our sugary treats.

    My father always stayed home, no matter what, and passed out the candy.

  9. Jedibabe Says:

    I couldn’t think of anything for this post, I just don’t have many costume stories that aren’t Star Wars related, and I’m sure you’ve heard all those already. I was a Starfleet officer once, and that’s different but still in space. And then it hit me! I do have a costume story and it was memorable for sure. My mother is an incredible seamstress and can make anything I could dream up. But like all moms she had her limits on how many creations she could manage. When I was nine there was an elementary service play at school; some sort of “Smokey the Bear saves the forest from fires” kind of thing. I couldn’t tell you the plot except that it had to have been about our woodland home burning down, undoubtedly from a carelessly tossed cigarette. It was very low budget, with paper masks and whatever we could put together for the set. I was a momma bear with a couple of cubs, and I begged my mom to make me a costume. She agreed, but only if I would wear it again for Halloween. So there I was: a bear! I was brown head to toe, and I wore pillows underneath trying my best to look like a momma bear. I had a hood for my head, and for the play I also had a painted on nose and whiskers (which I completely hated the feeling of). But on Halloween I skipped out on the greasy crud on my face and headed out wearing the long, brown, bumpy, hooded body length costume. Did I mention that my mom forgot to sew in a tail? Doesn’t seem like an important detail… but oh, it will. Out I went, knocking on doors. At one door when I said, “trick or treat” I can still remember the lady asking me what I was. “What do you think I am?” I asked her back (the whiskers would have come in handy at this point). Then she paused, looking very confused and sheepish, and finally guessing, “A turd?” I almost fell over. Even though I was only 9, I still knew that was funny! So for the rest of the night as I ran around in my lumpy brown costume with no tail I just started telling those who asked (and there were many) that I was a turd.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Oh, my goodness, this has to be the funniest comment in the history of this blog! I quite literally sat here at my computer laughing with my eyes streaming for about a full 3 or 4 minutes! If I read it again, I know the same thing will happen again! That is just hilarious! Did the costume have bear-like ears? (And in the play version . . . do bears have whiskers?! The whiskers would confuse me more than help me think “bear.” That sounds more like a walrus. . . .)

      • Jedibabe Says:

        There were little nubby ears on the hood, but they obviously didn’t help much! I suppose whiskers were a little out of character for a bear, though I’m not sure, I’ve tried hard to never get that close to one as I prowl around the woods! A walrus would have been funny too, but my legs would have given that away. If I recall, a couple of people did guess I was a potato, though I’ve yet to see a potato with legs either. Suffice to say, it was a very odd costume!

      • Shieldmaiden Says:

        Oh, I love this story! Jedibabe told my kids this story a long time ago, and my husband and I are asked to retell it to them frequently. Needless to say it instantly became a family favorite, and is surely a case when the parents laugh harder than the kids do every time it comes up. And Fred: you are right, it only gets funnier as you hear it again. When my husband read this post he died laughing, of course he knew where it was headed as he did, but he absolutely lost it all the way through the comment. And I am sure you are right about the whiskers, they may not have helped anyone know that they were looking at a “bear” but would definitely have helped in looking a lot less like a turd! LOL

    • Catherine Says:

      Jedibabe, did you ever dress up as the Death Star? I threw that idea out as a joke once for my sister, when she was going through the annual “what-do-I-wear” rant, and she took it! But my actual improvised costume left something to be desired . . .

      • Jedibabe Says:

        No Catherine, I took my Jedi-ing quite seriously and would never have considered dressing up as anything involved in the Empire’s evil realm, though I might have been talked into dressing up as Tatooine if I could have found some one to rig up the twin suns for me!

  10. John Says:

    I love the idea of costumes, but I never had the right combination of time/money/creativity to really have fun with it. When I was a kid, it really wasn’t a problem–I was always consoled by the candy. When I got past the trick-or-treating age, however, I tried to compensate with wit. That had varying success–from the year I lamely tried to “disguise my voice” and talk with an Irish accent all day (within a half hour I was talking Cockney and by lunch time I had given it up) to the time I wore a shirt, tie, pocket protector, eye patch and stuffed parrot and called myself a software pirate. (Arrr!)

    • Catherine Says:

      Fine, now it’s my turn to share MY memory about YOUR costume! I remember you bought a pirate set and wouldn’t paint your face with the included paint no matter how much I begged you to. The face paint was fair game and I tried to make myself up like a ballerina, numerous times. The dark brown made my eyebrows into Frida Kahlo’s, the bright red I applied liberally to my lips and the area around them, and the dark peach I slathered all over my face. Of course I never washed the brush between colors . . . :0

  11. Gabe Dybing Says:

    “Sagittal.” I have to look this one up. 🙂

  12. mileposter Says:

    My favorite was one I used for several years when I was teaching in a Lutheran school. I got a large plastic jack-o-lantern and cut the bottom out so it would fit over my head. Then I cut out one eye (they were painted on, in molded indentations, as was the mouth) so I could see–the eyes were too far apart for me to use both holes. I wore black jeans, a black overcoat, and black gloves. I held a tapered fiberglass baton in my right hand and struck it against my left, saying “Away with Ichabod Crane!” Other years I said nothing, and carried no baton. When people asked me questions, I pointed to my mouth and shook my head.

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