This Halloween I had almost resigned to going as myself, the lamest costume of all, when I found an old alarm clock in the back of Value World and the idea hit me: I’ll be a suicide bomber. I tore up an old red shirt, wrapped the cloth around paper-towel tubes to make TNT, and then duct taped the clock, the dynamite and a mess of wires and phone cords to my chest. By 9 p.m. I was ready to go.
The world is a strange enough place nowadays that we don’t need to shock ourselves with ghosts or monsters. Harper’s Magazine reported this past week that FBI agents at the Norfolk, Va., airport took anal swabs from a mechanical farting dog to make sure it did not contain explosives. The U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board announced that the government’s plan to bury nuclear waste near Las Vegas is dangerously flawed. The Berkshire Mountain town of Egremont, Mass. voted to block its roads with sandbags to keep plague-ridden New Yorkers away in the event of a bioterror attack on the city.
And there is no shortage of blood and gore. New York’s Staten Island Ferry crashed into the docks two weeks ago, decapitating two people and cutting in half some of the eight others who died. Several people lost limbs and the captain fled the scene, slashed his wrists and shot himself in the chest with a pellet gun. I saw a man in the “Today Show’s” outdoor crowd tell Al Roker, “Our town’s the one that makes the new ferries,” and the host seemed appreciative.
And in Iraq there is a higher rate of suicide among U.S. troops than during the Vietnam war. Guerillas are destroying Black Hawk helicopters and Abrams tanks, the latter of which President Bush called “the most effective armored vehicle in the history of warfare.” Opium output in Afghanistan is rising, bolstering warlords and terrorists, so much so that the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime has warned that the country might soon turn into a failed state and fall “in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists.”
It’s all a bit much, but it helps to explain why college students aren’t dressing up as ghouls and werewolves. We have scarier things to think about. At one of Friday night’s parties, I did see a vampire. But he was very dapper with a black suit, sharp red tie, and hair greased up. The fear, it seemed to say, lies somewhere underneath the appearance of civility.
But many students don’t dress up to scare. They go as The Dude from “The Big Lebowski,” Marilyn Monroe with Reynolds-Wrap boobs, men wearing fake breasts and sorority girl shorts, cowboys, Batman, Superman. At one spot, Princess Leia stripped down to a bikini and gave Luke Skywalker and the rest of the room an interesting show. It was risqu� and sexual, but only frightening if you don’t dig skinny girls.
So what is Halloween today? Is it really such a dark experiment, or is it neutralized by the tendency to dress up as pop stars? The answer lies in the ironic approach that some students take to their costumes. My girlfriend suggested I dress up as genetically modified corn, which sounded dumb until I saw the U.S. Department of Agriculture report of genetic experiments combining plants with genes from humans, chickens, cows, mice and other animals. Some examples of their projects include Corn plus Hepatitis B plus Simian Immunodeficiency Virus; safflower mixed with carp; wheat and chickens; and rats and soybeans.
I don’t get it. But that’s why we dress up. Everything is so weird and incomprehensible that it’s possible to find a bit of humor even in the darkest things, simply by assuming the role of someone or something else. Suicide bombers aren’t funny, but for some reason, it’s funny to dress up as one.
At one party, the people dressed as military personnel didn’t understand this ironic element. The World War II soldiers and S.W.A.T. team guys seemed unhealthily attached to their plastic rifles. One of them paid too much attention to his drinks and lost his M-16, and for a long time the music was drowned out by slurred screams of “Where’s my fucking gun?” I could tell he was ready to fight over it until his friend produced the piece from behind his back.
But isn’t there an added level of irony to see the meatheads dressed as soldiers? In this manner, Halloween becomes the ideal postmodern form of expression. We wallow in the layers of ambiguity. We spoof our sexuality, our authority over others, our favorite childhood role models, even our religions, and for one drunken night the horrors of the world become a strangely happy joke. Eventually, the place is a giant Rocky Horror Picture Show, and if you didn’t see it at midnight at the State Theater, you’re missing something.
Much like this column, a big portion of the film is for shock value. But it also turns old associations upside down, and by the end of the movie, when the bisexual dominatrix transvestite is laying in an inner tube in a swimming pool, floating above Michelangelo’s picture of Adam and God touching hands, you get an odd feeling that everything you’ve ever known has been reversed. And if something like that only happens one night a year, that’s not such a scary thing.
Cotner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.