Despite how much labor goes into a dissertation, it seems rare that one gets to speak about it casually. With other clinicians there may be some mutual academic interest, or if nothing else, to know how someone else paid their dues to earn a doctorate. This has been my experience for the most part. My dissertation “Persona Ex Machina: How is consciously embodied persona experienced through Live Action Role-Play?” does not see much discussion time with friends or relatives. I was once asked the title of my dissertation when sitting through a jury selection, and once I announced the title, the attorney paused for perhaps a good ten seconds before replying “that sounds like a dissertation topic” and had no further questions for me.
It is only in the middle weeks of October each year that my 32 months of work becomes discussable in average social settings. With Halloween impending, people seem more attuned to the idea of “dressing up” for the holiday. This entire article was born from an experience shopping in a store, and as I pushed my cart past the Halloween costumes, I heard a young boy insist to his mother that “I want to be something else this year.” It is the “something else” that is always the point of my fascination; and three of the themes from my dissertation seem present in the Halloween rituals and festivities.
The first theme which emerges in observing Halloween participants is that there is an immense freedom in what one can be for an evening. We are no longer confined to the roles that we embrace for the rest of the year. On this one evening, we are allowed supreme freedom to be almost anything. Regular people become aliens from another planet, Vikings, flappers, pirates and witches. It is permissible to wear clothing or hairstyles that were fashionable two decades ago, change your profession, your age, even your gender. It might be the one evening of the year that indulges creative expression, as long as people follow the Cinderella rule and after midnight return to their regular selves.
With this fleeting freedom, the next idea is how do we narrow down all the choices? Two of the ideas from my dissertation state that people choose a persona (and in this case, a costume) based on wanting to either experience something they perceive as foreign to their identity, or to embrace a part of themselves that typically remains undeveloped or underdeveloped in “normal” life. In the former case, a typically reserved individual might embrace something gregarious and outlandish. In the latter case, an undergrad psychology student might journey to a Halloween costume store, and shortly after purchasing a white beard, transform themselves into Sigmund Freud for the evening. Or the avid reader who enjoys mysteries procures a pipe, an overcoat and a magnifying glass and becomes the great Sherlock Holmes.
The devil being in the details holds true here as well, for it is not merely the wardrobe that makes for a great costume. If one is to truly embrace a role (the principle I refer to as conscious embodiment), the behavior must equally reflect that role. For our person-as-Freud, the costume would not be as complete if throughout the night they did not on occasion ask others to “Tell me about your Mother” in a thick Viennese accent. Someone dressing as Dr. Gregory House would not “be” Dr. House without a cane, a limp, some Mike & Ike’s to pop occasionally as if they were a handful of pills, and a heavy dose of sarcasm. Someone who manages to get a chef’s coat would still not be able to pull of being Gordon Ramsay for an evening without at least speaking in a British accent and exerting doses of profanity specific to various foods based on temperature, flavor, or texture. These are the behaviors that bring a character to life, and when they are done moderately well other people respond to them. Another partygoer will describe a dream to Dr. Freud, expecting overt sexual interpretations. People will ask Sherlock Holmes about a mystery of their own, a person guised as Marilyn Monroe might be asked to sing “Happy Birthday” to someone else who is being the President. Wonder Woman might be asked to use her Lasso of Truth on another partygoer, who now must answer questions honestly. It can be a playfully contagious affair, and people that place energy into this activity generally find it enjoyable and rewarding. For an evening, people can blur the lines of reality and experiment with their own creative potential.
It might be easy to get roped into Halloween apathy because of the neighborhood decorating expectations or having to purchase mass quantities of over-priced candy. You might be put off by having to answer the door more times in one evening than you might in an entire year, but I hope even if those things apply, they will not deter you. This is the one night of the year that social permission is given to be anything you have ever wished you could be. I hope that this year you will embrace this opportunity and veto reality for a few hours. The least of the result is that you engage in social creativity for an evening, and if you look deeply at your process, you may discover elements of yourself waiting to emerge that have been obfuscated far too long by the routines of everyday life we each engage in.
By Dr. Ryan Blackstock, PsyD, CAADC, ICAADC, Core Faculty at MSP