Candied apples, like Eve’s temptation in microcosm, represent the timeless sweet treat of adding a cloak of flavour to an otherwise predictable product. The desire to consume oneself anew may be the basis of fashion as well as the key to the unique tradition of Hallowe’en. Unless we dress up as a local Santa at Christmas, the sweet joy of being someone new for a day only comes once a year. October 31st reveals anthropological insights like any festive moment; curtains of normalcy are drawn back and, theoretically, we all get to let loose and dress the part of whomever we feel like embodying. Thing is, rhetoric of dress-up bases itself on the trickiest of tickle trunks: that we have a stable identity in the first place.
Who are you without what you do? Psychologically, the process of individuation is where we attain a pleasing status about ourselves to ourselves. Individuation occurs where “a person attains status as an individual human being and exerts himself or herself as such in the world” (APA dictionary of psychology, online). Our selves are more than relations to others; vocations, hobbies, and education all stew in a cauldron of personal meaning. Athabasca opens figuratively new doors of identity. Where once we were just another lowly citizen, we now reach skyward to triumph over our own ignorance. University, very literally, allows us to don a new psychological identity that we can add to our lexicon of self-worth; the final costume is what we wear if we attend our in-person convocation as graduates.
Education in the social sciences describes the fluid nature of one’s subjectivity; we each alternatively adopt roles such as child, parent, sibling, and worker. With deft prestidigitation worthy of a medieval sorceress, our roles seem as natural as donning a series of different hats for one or many occasions. Sometimes we enter the eerie realm of cognitive dissonance: as we engage with other cultures through our textbooks, and interpretations of identity around the world and within our society, we find that what seemed natural is not such a foregone conclusion after all. Of globalization Karl Marx wrote “all that is solid melts into air” and in the personal sphere, where we know ourselves as the one wearing the clothes that we see in the mirror, flexibility replaces constancy. Just as capitalist finance becomes a flowing global entity seeping into the symbolic underwear drawer of even the most honest Bay Street speculator, so too does our sense of self become amorphous and, well, ghost-like, as we drift through walls of certainty on a journey to find our destiny.
To play at being an outrageous character takes on a different veneer in times where gaming avatars and social media photo filters can give us anything from a different skin tone to whiskers to a whole new species. So wither Hallowe’en in this era of flexible online identities? Recalling that the Internet was a military invention and that the web catches not only our digital identities but also our sense of self and self-worth in a series of posts, ravings, private messages, and memes, perhaps Hallowe’en is just the thing to remind us that we do have concrete identities. We see the real compared to the extremes of becoming a fantasy facade. And we need only widen the lens of life enough to see that no, our magical thinking during a tabletop game session is not the same as being a real witch and that no manner of hirsute facial hair regimes will produce in us the bestial essence of being an authentic werewolf.
We are who we are. And we are basically the same Canadians that our Grandparents would understand, right down to that unofficial Tim Hortons turning lane as we enter a neighbouring town and find ourselves amidst countless other typical Canadians waiting to queue in a drive thru for sugar, stimulants, and sanctimony (there’s always a pet issue or cause for concern to donate that extra toonie to). As we are normal, so we rebel as part of normalcy. For instance, to punk or prank something in jest or as protest, is as normal as to consider oneself a rebel by purchasing a new outfit. Rebellion occurs within strict limits. Few among us dress up as a ghost wearing a white pointy sheet complete with eye holes, lest we appear as a literal KKK, yet dressing up remains a means of temporarily ghosting our former selves. For a day, that is, and rarely if ever for a lifetime. Consider the rock band the Dead Kennedys who sang of Hallowe’en “You’re dressed up like a clown/Putting on your act/It’s the only time all year you’ll ever admit that” (online).
We know what we know about ourselves by being other than our normal. The weirder the better but to be insensitive or off-putting, like Prince Harry twenty years ago dressing up as a Nazi, triggers a blowback worthy of a MAGA hat at a multicultural convention. The rules of Hallowe’en are as powerful and enforceable as at any high school prom dance. There’s space for edginess, but only of a staid, comfortable, sort. Remember Justin Trudeau busted for wearing blackface at a high school production? To dress as something really scary requires a dollop of humor and an edge of ironic self reflexivity, a horse wink at the audience.
Nevertheless, the joy of AU is that, although we have to take our studies seriously, our tutors often themselves have a sense of humour; pithy commentary are what footnotes are for! In fact, whole essays tinged with academic glee can make great reading, so long as we do the proper research and argumentation. Years ago, during a Cultural Studies course my wonderful professor Patricia Hughes-Fuller encouraged me to expand my ethnographic descriptions of redneck firepits I’d hosted into a final project for the course. And boy did I go to town relating the hi-jinks and debaucheries I’d witnessed at Hallowe’ens past. There’s nothing quite like being in the thick of a rowdy environment where identities are literally masked and mores and norms are a bit, er, looser than normal, to provide new fodder for our education as ethnologists. So why not treat this Hallowe’en as a sociological research setting and see what surprises await?