31st October 2013 New York, USA
The Importance of Being Costumed
New Yorkers have long cultivated a reputation for being nonplussed. We may well see a fistfight on the subway, an inflatable rat in front of a construction site, and an A-list movie star in fewer than five blocks– but we’re not going to let on that we did. Because in a city of 8 million people, why wouldn’t that be normal? And when that guy walks past you dressed in an Elmo costume or as Edward Scissorhands, well, that’s just another typical Wednesday in Times Square.
So it may seem strange that Halloween enjoys such special attention in a city where unusual is the usual. For example, this year, Greenwich Village’s Halloween Parade celebrates its 40th anniversary. The event, which features 53 different bands and hundreds of puppets, bills itself as the “nation’s most wildly creative public participatory event.” Only those in full costume are welcome to join. And they do – by the thousands each year.
The roots of this enthusiasm can be tied directly to that hallmark of the quintessential American childhood: trick or treating. Most Americans can remember the rituals of Halloween in their youth – figuring out a costume, strategizing how to get the most candy, marking the houses with the best reputation for tasty loot and, shamefully, punishing those who disappointed. For this delicate truce between candy-seekers and candy-givers to hold, several unwritten rules had to be accepted: Passing off last year’s candy would not be tolerated, every costume was to be praised (no matter how unidentifiable), and most importantly, this revered evening was not the time for the neighborhood dentist to try to proselytize the local youth to the Church of Good Oral Hygiene. One year the dentist up the street from me gave out floss and wholesome, healthy apples in lieu of Reese’s Pieces and awoke to find disgruntled trick-or-treaters had covered his car in homemade apple sauce and a minty fresh spider web. (Reports that I was present for these acts can neither be confirmed nor denied.)
In adulthood, the emphasis shifts from candy to creative costumes. Your reward in celebrating Halloween is no longer the best haul of chocolate, but compliments for a clever or wonderfully convincing costume. Over the years, I’ve been Sherlock Holmes, a Magic Eight Ball, and a Portrait of Dorian Gray to name a few. Halloween was fun growing up, but moving to the United Kingdom in my 20s introduced me to the concept of Fancy Dress and the idea that every party is the perfect excuse to put together a costume. This was welcome news after only being allowed to dress up once a year. When I returned home, I brought that enthusiasm for costumes with me.
It’s no surprise then that Halloween and Halloween costumes seem to be catching on in the UK. after languishing in relative obscurity, or at least in the shadow of Guy Fawkes Day. According to a recent article in the New York Times, sales of Halloween-related items in the UK are projected to increase by 12% this year, or nearly £325 million pounds. Meanwhile, Scotland-based costume company Morphsuits continues to enjoy popularity in the US, with American consumers making up 37% of its sales.
These trends are typical of the ever-prosperous cultural trade between the US and the UK. At this year’s Halloween festivities in New York, I expect to encounter at least two couples dressed as Matthew and Mary Crawley and potentially one person dressed as the Royal Baby. Meanwhile in the UK, the popularity of shows like “The Walking Dead” (with British actor Andrew Lincoln as the male lead) has helped to draw attention to the spookier side of Halloween, like zombies and werewolves.
For now, I’m going to continue to have the best of both worlds: New York’s fervor for Halloween and being hooked into the British ex-pat community here so I have an excuse to throw together a costume and head to a Fancy Dress party multiple times a year. I highly recommend it. So whether you’re in the US or the UK, enjoy a Happy and safe Halloween!