Editor’s Note: The following includes mentions of suicidal thoughts and mental health crisis
When you’re a child.
You know what’s cool? Terminator 2 and the combo of an awesome, massive, plastic gun, a faux-leather jacket, and some shades. A couple years later, ask your big brother to do your face paint like The Crow. Instead he’ll paint your face like Peter Criss from Kiss – a cat. Throw a fit because Halloween is ruined.
When You’re 12.
Take a deep breath: you’ve just moved to a new town for sixth grade, and your next door neighbor, who’s in your class, invited you to play football with him at lunch. They seem like cool kids.
When they invite you to go trick or treating, accept! For some reason – maybe because you’re a weird loner nerd – decide to dress as Charlie Chaplin. All the kids love Charlie Chaplin. Right? All you have to do is find a vest and cane at a thrift store and paint a Hitler-esque ‘stache on your face. The night before Halloween, however, realize you haven’t made firm plans, don’t know where your new friends live, and it’s the nineties.
One friend will call your house and leave a voicemail, giving his address and a time to meet him. Unfortunately, he mumbles. What did he say his address was? Your dad won’t be able to make it out either.
On Halloween night, get all dressed up despite the fact you have nowhere to go. Get your dad to drive you around for a while looking at signs to see if you can put a street name to the mumble on the voicemail. You’ll fail. You can’t call him and figure it out – you don’t have his house phone number.
Go trick-or-treating alone for a few minutes before the loneliness and disappointment crush you. It was your last chance – next year, you’ll be too old.
When You’re 17.
You’re on the social committee in high school and Halloween falls on a weekday. Plan a weeklong “spirit week” culminating in a costume contest at lunch.
Your girlfriend will suggest you try a gender swap couple’s costume. She’ll put on one of your polos and a pair of your baggy jeans. Wear one of her skirts and let her manipulate your hair into what today you’d understand to be Bantu knots. There’s something thrilling about dressing “like a girl,” but don’t attempt to put your finger on it.
When You’re 18.
West Hollywood is only about 20 minutes from your college, and apparently that’s the place to go. You’re an overambitious freshman taking too many classes, so this will be a last-minute affair. Take a quick thrift store trip and you’ll be set – Risky Business. You’ve never seen the movie, but black sunglasses and an oversized white button-down shirt is all you need. Wear basketball shorts under it, though. You’re not yet confident enough for tighty-whities.
The beautiful teens and twenty-somethings in WeHo will take Halloween to another level. The women will basically be wearing lingerie. The men will show off their six packs. Every costume you’ll see is “sexy.” Every person you’ll see will be drunk or high. The streets will be packed with confident young people and painted with vomit.
It will be crowded, messy, drug-fueled, and disorienting. You’ll see people making out. You’ll think you see people doing more. The smell will be nauseating. Everyone will seem like they’re having the time of their lives. Regret coming. Then regret that seeing all of these beautiful young people makes you feel inadequate in a way you can’t define. And that somehow you’ve become a fun-hating, socially awkward prude. And that no costume can disguise this.
When you’re 22.
You’re young, newly single, think you could probably be queer, and the world is your oyster! You’re also introverted, a nerd, and not totally ready for drag.
Why not try a somewhat-accessible spin on a classic? Genderqueer Mario it is; find a red cap, red tee, and a denim overall dress thing at the thrift store you spotted on one of your sheepish, halting dips into the “women’s” section. Use construction paper to make an “M” for the cap and, to the degree you can, grow out a mustache.
By this point you’ll have gone out on two dates with boys. The first one had a Prince Albert piercing. You were surprised at how everything tasted – and realized quickly you weren’t drunk enough to continue. This hurt his feelings and you rode your bike home. On the other date, you got cold feet back at his place and left while he was in the bathroom. For now, your queerness is manifested in polyamory – maybe it’ll take time to work up to actually dating boys. Or maybe neither of them were the right kind of guy.
Go into non-monogamy with gusto: try sort-of dating three different women at the same time! It feels exhilarating and exhausting. So far it’s gone off without a hitch. Maybe this is what felt “missing?” Why you had to break up with your college girlfriend of 3+ years and go out to “explore” your queerness, even though dating boys hasn’t panned out?
Arrive at the Halloween house party and see Woman You’re Dating #1. She is dressed like a Sriracha bottle. Chat with her, and across the room make eye contact with Woman #2, who is dressed like a constellation. Smile and wave awkwardly. She’ll begin to walk toward you. Attempt to maneuver your way out of the first conversation and into the inevitable second – until you see Woman #3, whose costume you can’t make out from this angle. This will be … too much. Finagle your way out of both conversations and then out of the party, which you stayed at for less than 15 minutes. Non-monogamy is terrifying. And not for you. So then… what is for you?
As you get ready to bike home, your ex will call. She just wants to talk. Meet up at a burrito bar and she will already have had a double margarita. She isn’t wearing a costume.
Make small talk and “catch up.” She’ll finish her second double margarita. When she orders a third, tell her that you don’t think it’s a good idea. She’ll drunkenly disagree and start choking down the last one. Instruct the server to cut her off.
Pay the bill, call a taxi, and take her home. Walk her into her house and down the stairs to her bedroom – and then immediately into the bathroom. Hold her hair and pat her back while she sobs and vomits. Afterward, tuck her into bed. She’ll wail and hold you and try to kiss you and say she would do anything, just anything, if you only would take her back. She’ll ask you why. You won’t be sure anymore. She’ll ask if it was worth it. You won’t know.
When you’re 24.
Your partner is Russian and is going as a Pussy Riot member – a pretty simple balaclava and dress pairing. You’ll finally be ready to wear a dress in public, and since this is a momentous occasion, go all out.
You don’t yet own a bra, and haven’t yet braved the women’s underwear section anywhere. Your partner is much smaller than you, so you can’t borrow one. Instead, devise a contraption with bags of rice strapped around your chest. Find a purple wrap dress at the thrift store and get some cheap tights. Make a dozen little snake heads with Sculpey. Buy some thick wire from the hardware store.
Wrap your hair, which has grown out to the longest it’s ever been, in green and brown yarn and feed the wire through it, then attach the snake heads to the ends. Your partner will do your makeup – this isn’t the first time you’ve worn makeup, but it’s the first time you’ve really worn makeup. Voilá.
It’s just a costume, and it doesn’t really fit. But it really fits.
When you’re 25-28.
From now on, every Halloween costume will be femme. For a while, they’ll still be costumes. But eventually they’ll be extensions of the self you are in months that aren’t October. Finally realize – after literal years – that you aren’t a gay man, or non-monogamous, or a non-binary person. You’re a gay woman. This is thrilling. And terrifying.
Dress as Hermione one year. Amethyst another. Catwoman. Go to parties. Meet a cute woman dressed as Roxane from A Goofy Movie. A cute woman with a meme costume that you’re Not Online Enough to understand. A handful of other Steven Universe characters, other Griffyndors, some Harley Quinns and Poison Ivys. Make out with a few of them. You’ll typically go home alone.
When you’re 29.
In September, your friend will take her own life. Quit your career as a high school teacher and spend a month on the couch. You won’t have the energy to even notice that it’s October, except that the 25th would have been her birthday. Try and fail to follow her into the dark. Spend a few days locked up in the psych ward, and then a few more weeks on a couch – this time your dad’s.
She was the first person to empower you to wear a dress in public on a non-holiday. You didn’t get a chance to celebrate Halloween together, but she dressed like it was Halloween every day. It would have been epic.
Halloween will come and go. Spend the weeks before and after, at your dad’s house, wearing the costume of a daughter who isn’t on the precipice so as not to worry him. The costume of someone who just had a momentary lapse. Who just took her friend’s death a bit too hard but will be fine.
The costume of someone whose father’s concern and skepticism doesn’t hurt because he’s just being a cautious, careful parent. Of someone whose stepmom’s makeup advice doesn’t hurt because she’s genuinely trying to help. Of someone who doesn’t, upon considering their feedback, feel like she’ll never be taken seriously. Of someone who doesn’t wish she’d succeeded.
In your early thirties.
You’re not really into partying anymore – so what’s the point of putting effort into a costume? When you get the opportunity, go to the Kim Petras concert just weeks after her instant-classic, Halloween-themed, spooky album Turn Off The Light is released. Some people wear costumes to the concert, but don’t bother.
It’ll be the loudest concert you’ll have ever been to. Luckily, one of the ushers will be handing out free ear plugs – get some. Part of you feels like you’re missing out on the authentic concert experience. Maybe all those years of sitting on the speakers in the front row at emo concerts as a kid means that by now, your ears are busted. Or maybe it’s just because you no longer feel the need to suffer in order to have fun. Or be alive.
Bring your girlfriend to the concert. When you have a girlfriend, by the way, try suggesting a couple’s costume – but don’t push it. Some years you won’t wear a costume at all. Most years you won’t go out. Where would you go? To a loud bar filled with young, sexy people? A sweaty, dirty house party that’s so crowded you can’t think? And then the pandemic will happen. Stay in and make Jack O’ Lanterns that fall apart by the next morning. Concerts are better than parties anyway.
You went to see the band Fences once, on Halloween. Realize this was more than 10 years ago. You were a boy then, confused, stressed, finding yourself, harming yourself. You didn’t expect to live this long. Didn’t expect that a cozy holiday in, cutting pumpkins with a loving partner, was in the cards. Or that you even desired that – quiet, domesticity, love – so strongly it hurt. Maybe that’s why you turned that hurt inward. Except on Halloween, when you could be someone else. And for one night, at least that hurt was temporarily lifted.
“Halloween is Gay Christmas!” Kim Petras yells from the stage. You’ve never understood the phrase – Christmas is about giving gifts, about appreciating your loved ones, about celebrating rebirth and fresh starts. Right? But Halloween is about obscuring your true self behind a mask.
Unless it’s about giving yourself a gift. Appreciating the hidden beloved inside you by allowing her to break out, sniff the crisp Autumn air, and take a deep breath once a year. So that she can grow until she’s no longer the costume. Until she’s too big to keep inside. Maybe Halloween’s about celebrating that nearly dying gave you the courage to allow yourself to be reborn. To start fresh. That you weren’t obscuring your true self behind a mask on Halloween, you were doing it the rest of the year.
There’s no more pressure. No more crisis. Dress as Ms. Grotke from the cartoon Recess – a liberal teacher challenging norms in her own way. You’re not a teacher anymore, but it’s the closest that you’ve ever gone to simply dressing as yourself. It will feel comfortable – maybe because you’re finally, truly comfortable in your own skin for the first time in your life.
Halloween costumes are traditionally scary – ghosts, goblins, political figures. Look back at the last 20 years and realize how genuinely terrifying it is that you spent so long hating yourself, trying to escape, seeking. That you frequently went an entire year wearing a costume and only got a reprieve on that one glorious October day – which ended up turning out like shit. What a mind fuck.
Realize how terrifying it is that stifling yourself like that nearly killed you. That you nearly killed you. You know what’s scarier than the killer being inside the house? The killer being inside your own body. Inside your own mind. And she’s still there, stalking, haunting, creeping around – she gets weaker and weaker every day, but she’s still there. Whispering. A killer you can’t reason with because of her murderous irrationality. And can’t kill, because, well, you are her.
Test out the cheap earrings and necklace you bought, and the green dress you already had. Looks perfect. Go outside and smell the crisp autumn air. Buy a little gourd from Trader Joe’s. Take your girlfriend to a pumpkin patch and corn maze. You’ve finally got a couple’s costume – she’s going to be Ms. Frizzle. Gay teacher love! Maybe this year you’ll go to some kind of gathering – you and your partner, and nearly 90% of your city, are vaccinated – or maybe you’ll just stay in.
Either way, for maybe first time, this year Halloween won’t be a manifestation of an existential crisis. It’ll just be fun. Finally.