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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Our Masquerade

Judging just by its economic impact, Halloween is the second-most popular holiday in the U.S. It's the day when you get to be someone else, and that someone indulges in sweets of all kinds without any concern for the consequences. Perfectly respectable citizens dress as ghouls and turn their front lawns into graveyards, playgrounds for ghosts and devils, and bloody crime scenes. On Halloween we get to try on a different role, perhaps becoming what we secretly wish we could be, in a world without real consequences. Sometimes the person you become is already dead -- Cleopatra, Napoleon, Groucho, Isadora Duncan -- and so you’re free to behave like someone who has a second chance at life. Or your new self is an animal -- lion, fox, lamb, or squirrel -- and you can do whatever your avatar might do: roar threateningly at people or skitter about the room, stuffing handfuls of peanuts and candy into your bulging cheeks. No cause for embarrassment! You're merely playing your designated role, acting out your fate. 

I had a friend who came to a costume party as a pumpkin. The behavior of pumpkins is mysterious. As far as I know, they don't live by anyone's rules. Pumpkins can't be held responsible for what they do. But, as we soon discovered, they do get drunk -- and grumpy. Sometimes we discover our personalities as we go along. Dressed in a giant bunny suit, we discover that we love to hug strangers, and that strangers like to be hugged by big, silent, smiling bunnies. Dressed as a diapered baby, we discover our interest in the towering, leather-corseted dominatrix. 

It's so exciting to change our identities and spice up our behavior that I marvel that such occasions don't occur once a month – or, on the other hand, that they haven't yet been outlawed. Masquerades were popular in London in the 18th century, when the middle class was growing and wealth was helping people without family connections to climb the rungs of society. One could not always know quite who was who. The masquerade party took that anxiety away by opening the social border-crossings that were normally so anxiously monitored. 

At Halloween, we discover that we’re all actors, liars, and cheats, even if we conveniently forget this fact the next day. We teach our children the thrill of deception, the invention of personality, and the confusion of identity. All of this is part of how we adults became who we supposedly are. We ask the child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?,” and at some level, they understand that adulthood is a game of make-believe.

How did you learn your grownup lines? Where did you learn to don your daily costume, to style your hair in just that way, to smile and frown as you do? When did you invent your story? Who am I, after all, but a guy in costume improvising my part in a crazy play that is only half-scripted? That’s adulthood.

I suspect that our Halloween costumes reveal our closeted selves, the truths we conceal under the guise of ordinary life. Perhaps the main purpose of this holiday is to support the illusion of ordinary life by giving free rein for one day to an alternative that seems too crazy to be true. One falsehood conceals another. The trick is the treat.

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