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Halloween Psychology: Costume Revelations, Both Slutty and Mean

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By HVnews on October 29, 2011


There’s going to be a whole lotta Sexy Wearers of Winter Coat in the northeast this weekend…

The Halloween theme was a little different at the law firm offices of Steven J. Baum last year, according to a must-read op-ed by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. The “foreclosure mill” firm, which represents all the big mortgage lenders like Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, throws an annual costume party in the office where employees dress up at work.

A former employee sent some photos of last year’s party to Nocera. Why? “Because they showed an appalling lack of compassion toward the homeowners — invariably poor and down on their luck — that the Baum firm had brought foreclosure proceedings against,” the employee told him. They’re dressed as homeless people, as squatters, as advocates fighting against evictions of Baum’s clients.

The psychology behind these absurdly insensitive costumes is interesting, and open to all kinds of interpretation. Are these employees simply evil bastards who enjoy kicking people when they’re down? Or perhaps, on a less accusatory note, they were just dehumanizing their work, separating themselves from jobs they’re not particularly fond of off the clock. And does the fact that this was a private party make them look better (less offensive than in public) or worse (it’s more heartless in private)?

That’s for everyone to decide on their own. But the revelation in Saturday’s Times led us to dig up a great column from last October on the psychology of Halloween costumes. In it clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Hooberman breaks down every child’s favorite holiday: Canadian Thanksgiving Halloween.

For Hooberman, despite the costumed nature of this holiday, Halloween is actually one of the few times in which we get full view of our fellow beings’ wild, untamed, and most truthful sides of their psyches.

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Whoa, check out the Ids on that one!

Halloween is the one day where it is completely acceptable to wear outrageous outfits and masks and other such get-ups. For little girls they get to be a princess, for young women it’s a slutty “whatever.”

In anticipation of this excuse-of-a-day-to-wear-cleavage-exposing-outfits, I wanted to look at what is really revealed by the masks that are worn, both on Oct. 31 and otherwise. Despite the costumed nature of this holiday, I believe Halloween is actually one of the few times in which we get full view of our fellow beings’ wild, untamed, and most truthful sides of their psyches.

Most days of the year, adults show their real faces and dress respectably with clothes that cover naughty bits in an attempt to portray themselves as competent and professional individuals (I generalize here, as Lady Gaga is an outlier in this equation). We probably believe that this is our true selves that we are exhibiting to the world, as this is the identity that we have chosen for ourselves and is the daily life that we live. In most cases, however, we have to wear at least some sort of mask to keep this so-called reality intact.

For over a century, psychologists and psychiatrists have been writing about this true self/false self dichotomy. You’ve all heard of the id, right? It’s the deepest seat of our most primal urges and seething impulses that seeks to dispel its energy on anything and everything. Imagine your neighbor’s dog humping your leg with reckless abandon. Of course, we humans cannot go along humping any old leg at any old time. Societal rules and regulations force us to dampen those. We must compromise, so we present a more decent self to the world; in other words, we all must wear a bit of a mask.

Hopefully this compromise works out for the best, and we are able to get some of our urges met in reasonable and mature way.

The problems occur for those people who are so in denial of their urges for fear that they are unacceptable to the world, that they exhibit a false personality, which is almost the opposite of their deep desires. This is the true sense of the word: Hypocrite.

A prime example of this is a conservative congressman who spits venom about the evils of homosexuality, and then is found to have an active gay sex life in airport public bathrooms. Clearly, the facade is a reaction to the discomfort of these urges. It’s quite sad, really, as this person is forced to live an unreal and false life.

Halloween is a time for adults to let that id out. For kids, it’s different. It’s still generally a time where they get to experiment with different identities, replicate their heroes, etc. Once childhood is over, however, it is expected that we no longer need to experiment with our identities.

Adult/adolescent Halloween costumes are different then kids’, as Jack-o’-lanterns and Spider-man are supplanted by demon baby figurines and pervy bananas.

Expressing a healthy sex drive is clearly, well, healthy. But we live in a culture of dichotomies and inconsistencies, where sex is known to sell, but the puritanical upbringings of our country cause us to wag or fingers at displays of sexuality that poke through the mainstream (for examples of this, please refer to the uproars surrounding Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction and the recent Weinergate scandal). Halloween, it appears, allows adults to turn convention on its head, throw off the constraints of conscience, and get down and dirty.

So, as Halloween approaches this year, think about what party you’re going to, why you have chosen to dress up as Snooki, and what desire this is really satisfying.

Josh Hooberman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who works at a large Manhattan hospital and keeps a small private psychotherapy practice. He probably thinks you’re crazy.

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