Sunday, October 30, 2011

Death Becomes Her

I have always, always loved costume parties, the opportunity to become someone, something else for a day or night; the way costumed affairs cast a fanciful light onto even the most mundane times and places, from middle school cafeterias, to office parties with plastic cups balancing on the copier machine and bars lit dimly only to hide their prosaic features.

No matter how uninspired the event or the place or even its bearer, a true costume always lends some strange magic to them. A true costume, of course discounts "sexy nurses", "sexy firemen", "sexy air stewardesses" and "sexy garbage truck drivers", as well as giant alien heads, cheap, plastic presidents and werewolves, and most anything that smacks of store-bought packaged costumes. Only children have the transformative powers to make a plastic Darth Vader mask the terrifying presence of the Dark Lord himself. A true costume, you see, is a transformation. You put it on, piece by piece, and suddenly, inside that cardboard and facepaint, or even the cheap plastic mask, you are someone else.
Perhaps it is only because I was raised in a theater, but I truly believe in the power of metamorphosis as an ancient tool of self-knowledge. We no longer perform rites that require our transformation into deities and demons, our own ancestors and animal spirits. There are no sacred costumes, secret identities we get to assume yearly. We are not transported from ourselves, joined into the larger order of the universe or the chain of our predecessors, by a bit of painted clay or wood, a swishing reed skirt, or a heavy crown resting on our brow. Instead, we are our mundane, everyday selves 365 carefully meted out days a year.

(I do have to add that I actually happen to live in a community where masked rituals do take place as a part of our celebrations.)

Bella Muerte
The power of our chosen costumed affair, All Hallow's Eve, Halloween then, is actually quite significant. Far from just putting on your cardboard contraption and taking a child off to gather sweets from friends and neighbors for the empty threat of tricks, there is an air of genuine mischief about the celebration.
A nation as prim and "family-valued" as this, for a short season adorns it's front stoops and store windows with ghastly images, reminders of ancient terrors and the very modern fear of death itself. It dresses its' children up and lets them loose on their own tiny Bacchanalia, an orgy of refined sugar and corn syrup (surely every parent's nightmare). Its' grown-ups don ridiculous get-ups and mask their identities.
Covering your face affords you certain liberties, whether they are real or imagined. Masked affairs can easily lead to masked affairs, debauchery, property destruction, over-indulgence. They enable behaviors considered deviant, to become socially acceptable, if even for a night. Cross-dressing, explicit sexuality and morbidity abound.

Often our choice of costume reflects some facet of our personality, perhaps the way we wish to be seen, or a deeper subconscious part that we are free exhibit only through a frivolous activity, such as a character we inhabit for a masquerade.
There are the afore-mentioned sex-kitten costumes, telling perhaps of only our need to be pretty and accepted, rather than wild and dangerous, at all times. Then there are the humorous and ironic costumes, a lighter side of these darkening days, a need to not take ourselves seriously, or perhaps an inability to do so. And finally, the grotesque characters, the mutilated bodies, the zombies, the skeletons of our subconscious closets.
The American Halloween is but a variation of the Day of the Dead celebrations the world over. Where I'm from All Saint's Day is for remembrance of the dead, when cemeteries all over the country are lit up with hundreds of thousands of candles, illuminating this dark time of year. In Great Britain, remnants old of pagan traditions hold, the veil between the worlds thins on Shamhain, which may have also been a remnant of a Celtic new year's celebration, a time of harvest, cleansing and new beginnings. Dia de los Muertos, is in Mexican tradition, a twist on the catholic remembrance of dead loved ones and saints, as well a raucous celebration of life by acknowledging that which follows it.

It is from the latter tradition that I will borrow my costume from tomorrow night, going as a Calavera Catrina, or perhaps Mictecacihuatl, an elegant skull, a Lady of The Dead. Not content to with pretty finery (though being able to dress like a Mexican christmas tree is certainly part of the attraction), I look forward to adding some disquiet to the mix. I imagine the skeleton woman silent, smiling, having for a night transcended that which this holiday represents: The endless circle of life. Each death a new beginning.
And who or what are you going to swap your skin for this dark and stormy night? Happy Halloween!


  1. oh my dear! i was expecting a post about the fair and then i had to do a double take...these are the exact same images i have been perusing voraciously as i prepared for my own costume last night: the skeleton woman, the calavera bride, the lady of dia de los muertes. haha! my dear girl, i guess we are investigating similar wild subconscious cycles, and i am sure with similar delight! i am reading that chapter in Women who Run with the Wolves (finally! how i love it and thank you!) and it struck such a chord in my heart. i had fun drawing on my face but nothing quite as bone chillingly beautiful as those ladies above. (i'm sure i'll post pics at some point) i love the idea of a wispy deathly haunting bride in tatters and lace and flowers and vines and red red roses, bringing the not-beautiful to the earth for reflection and spooks and untangling. hope you have a wickedly mesmerizing eve. our moon tonight is so strangely aglow.

  2. oh yeah, and i can't wait to hear about the faire too :)

  3. i love being anon so getting the chance to wear a mask suits me well. ;)

    loved your tat collection in a previous post btw.

  4. I'm not sure if you know that Halloween isn't a big deal over here in upside-down land. I was having a discussion with some women this morning about it, and none of us had a clear understanding of did it come AFter reading this post, more than ever i wish i was able to experience the tradition as a child. I love how you've spoken about the costume/transformation part of it....made it sound like a magical evening of mischeviousness where anything can happen. For the first time ever we had three lots of trick or treaters tonight. I hope the night is gaining popularity so we can head out next year. x

  5. What amazing images, they have a real feel of Frida Kahlo, and the mexican grace with death. Halloween is an important event here, as it always was. And tomorrow a day to remember the dead, which still exists even in its catholic translation. Halloween for me is deeply in the world of six year old, not quite ready for the power of these thoughts and images. For us the focus is on a little walk in the dark after bedtime, and visiting neighbors to sing for a treat. I yearn a little for your kind of Halloween as I look at these, so much more comfortable am I with death now, how I would love to express that in costume and play.
    HAVE A WONDERFUL party this night!!!!!

    x E

  6. that will be a great costume! i'm not much for dressing up these days, i'm way burned out from the years when i was belly dancing professionally and had to get dressed up every weekend, sometimes twice. but i love that costume idea. if i ever have a life again and go somewhere for halloween besides taking my kids trick or treating, i'm so doing that costume. we are pretty mainstream here about halloween. my mom, hippie that she was, refused to ever let me have the plastic storebought costumes of my desire. so my kids get to be the most plasticky, superhero-y, store-bought-y costumes they want to be. this year it's batman and spiderman. have a great halloween! looking forward to hearing about the faire and seeing how many people were wearing feather headdresses. *wink* that's my festival/faire game, sighting hipster headdresses. hee hee.

  7. I was stunned silent by these photos and the intricate beauty of the paint. It is an art!

    What you wrote about the feel of the season, the Day of the Dead celebrations. My mama told me that this time of year, the barrier between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. We are able to more easily commune with spirits. She lost her best friend during this time, and while she was sad that she left, she knew that the transition was the easiest for her and she was grateful for that.

    Thank you so, so very much for your comment on my blog. I'm excited to be writing it! In my heart, I felt like something was missing from my life. The routine of reading others' thoughts and adventures, writing mine, connecting with people has given me a lot to be grateful and excited for. Thanks again.

  8. i hope we get to see photos of your costumed beauty....loving you so much! i will teleport to you via telephone this week.

  9. Some girls from my school did this this Halloween and it turned out so well!

  10. I absolutely love this post - the transformative possiblilites of REAL costumes. It's a topic I'm really interested in. It's kind of like in the ballet rite of spring where they put on those bear pelts.

    I wrote a poem about a masked parade recently. The idea of it was that the girls in the poem were hiding behind these cunning disguises and outwitting people.

    I really want to see pictures of you in your costume!

  11. synch! check my blog for my kids' costumes. great minds ;) .....

    p.s. how the heck did i miss your "ink" post. off to read now. xo

  12. Oh dear!

    I've been following your blog for a while and have liked your posts very much until I came across this one. For someone as aware as I take you to be, I have to admit, I'm quite shocked. Please read this

    and please do consider. I know I'm a day late but I guess it's never too late to start thinking about cultural appropriation.

  13. Milla's post is so thoughtful I don't agree with this comment, though everyone is entitled to their opinion.

    I'm well aware of issues to do with cultural appropriation, but at the same time an uneasiness about engaging with other cultures is like a fear of translation _ we shouldn't do it because we might get it wrong? We ignore it and stay in our little box. Isn't it more valuable to try and engage with it?

  14. Dia de los Muertos is a beautiful Mexican holiday. I love how you featured the different skeleton faces.


  15. can't wait to see pictures!

    i don't see how this is disrespectful. i read the link above and i found it annoying. i know all saints day and all souls day are real feast days with a lot of history behind them, but give me a break! my daughter dressed as st. bernadette on all saints day. is that offensive as well? i know you aren't being disrespectful in any way and i'm sure most people who dress up in dia de los muertos costumes aren't trying to be either.

  16. The imagery surrounding Dia de Los Muertos is beautiful and I love that it is a celebration of death rather than a promotion of fear. I like the idea of infusing our traditionally death-phobic Halloween festivities with such a costume.

    Especially when worn by someone who obviously has deep appreciation and respect for what it represents, as anyone who knows you even a little bit knows that you do. <3

    Oh dear... I, on the other hand, fully appropriated the Swiss with my Halloween costume, wooopsies...

  17. I really enjoyed seeing all these gorgeous faces. the art is incredible. the writing sharp. and I also enjoyed the slight controversy. refreshing to get a little shake up here on blogland, where fawn & praise run a'plenty :)

    cheers, to postly discontent!


    i know it's kind of unrelated, but i have been thinking about diego rivera ever since i saw one of his murals here in sf a few months back, and this article has an incredible photo of an even bigger one here in sf that i have never seen in person before...and frida kahlo peeps out in part of it!

    you have chosen one of the most beautiful costumes anyone can don for halloween! can't wait to see pics of your spin on it.

  19. I dressed up as an octopus (made the costume myself) complete with ocean fish and sea weeds. Not very Halloween'y, but I refuse to dress up slutty, and going as a gypsy just means dressing like I always do. I was a happy octopus.

  20. Halloween is NOT derived from dia de los muertos and dressing up like that for Halloween makes non-mexican people think it's okay to dress up like that. Not cool. At all.