Small Change Agents at MegaHalloween
…with two essays–a teacher-student pair…. Introducing Stetson Math Major and popular culture enthusiast, Chris Finkle
On Halloween night, everyone got their play on. It’s a time for looking at the world with a twist. And in DeLand, FL, costumed creatures of every stripe converged—well over 2,000 from many towns and many social backgrounds—straining the sidewalks and front lawns, and creating a pop culture peak into the contemporary imagination.
Consider the three sharks swimming up the sidewalks; they included a baby shark with an unspoken commentary for doting parents: this baby’s mother and father showed shark bites. The Dean of the Supernatural might supply some ideas for the upper strata of university administration. The friend of one cool Hipster announced “it’s not a costume; it’s who she is.” One woman spoke for many a harried mother; by the end of the evening, she was “a Batty Mom.” One person looked like a passive bystander, but he had a shirt that spoke to the digital rabbit holes of everyday life: “Error 404: Costume Not Found.” Another person’s shirt offered a sly commentary on the thinness of some declarations of sincerity: with an image of two skeletons, one was wrenching out the backbone of the other saying cheerfully, “I’ve got your back!”
All that playful irony can bump us out of our usual channels of thought. Laughter is not only good medicine; it also plays on our assumptions. Words and arguments can make full frontal assaults on our thinking, but humor enters through the back door. What it cannot produce in directness, it gains in ability to make steady inroads on our minds.
All those light and playful comments are not direct change agents, but they plant seeds in people’s mind that can grow into changed attitudes. The messages of these small change agents are about challenges to established ways, against business as usual. The playful costumes on the street reflect a mood of irreverence that pervades the country these days from brash digital startup entrepreneurs to presidential candidates climbing in the polls despite being out of favor with their party’s establishment leaders.
Other outfits found people who were ready to think outside the box. Bo Peep was able to tend to her sheep, but she was not little. There was one Royalty who was “a little rotten”—but then we Yanks always suspected that. Halloween darkness was well represented with a Dark Elf, two Dark Brides, and of course a Dark Grim Reaper. And death gets high billing this night too with Dead Cat, Dead Doctor, Dead Bride, and two playing characters from “The Dawn of the Dead” and “The Day of the Dead.” Get a costume to provoke emotion? Fuggedaboudit, wear the feeling itself: Disgust (from Inside Out). No Phantom of the Opera in these parts, but his dad was there, in a striking likeness. Not one mythical god, but 7 goddesses. One Groupie, but no word on which group this one groupied with. There were Four Tigers but no worries about the one who was only “maybe a tiger.” One person was just a Beast; what kind?—“a Sexy Beast.” Two Surgeons, but no Ben Carsons, and in fact, there was not a single candidate or politician, despite the campaigning that fills the news. The costume weather reports sounded fairly alarming, even for Florida: of three Clouds, one was a Killer Cloud.
Many outfits pushed the envelope in fun and cheeky ways, but even the most popular ones had some edgy touches. The Top Ten include a surprise winner with Cats in the lead, but only if you include the sly one from Dr. Seuss:
29 Cats, including Cat Zombie, Crazy Cat Lady, Wild Kitty, and Cat in the Hat;
28 Ninjas, including one Combat Ninja, and 4 Ninja Turtles;
27 Zombies, including ones that doubled as Cop, Bride, Football Player, Pirate, Soccer Player, Captain, and two Walking Dead;
16 Elsas but only 5 Annas from the Kingdom of Arendelle;
14 Princesses, including Fairy Princess, Vampire Princess, and one “in a birthday dress”;
13 Batmen, but only two Robins, and one Bat Girl;
10 Captain Americas;
9 Grim Reapers; and
9 Skeletons, including one Pumpkin Skeleton and one Mexican Skeleton.
Even the scary and cute outfits give kids of all ages a chance to play with their imagination. This year’s play might be next year’s innovation—if we dare.
-Paul Croce, Professor of American Studies and History at Stetson University, offers special thanks to the students who joined in the fun of talking with the costumed wonders, and to Mary Bernard, Katie Nathenson, and Bret Whitmore who helped to organize the information.
Halloween Costumes: Mass, Folk, and Mass Folk Cultures
In today’s children, the old folk culture that used to permeate Halloween is dead.
This was readily apparent in my observations of the costumes on Minnesota Avenue in DeLand, FL, this Halloween. No child could dress as a generic pirate, because they’d never lived in a world without Captain Jack Sparrow to influence their view of piracy. Nobody dressed as a generic ninja when Lego Ninjago on Cartoon Network gives particular ninja characters. Nonspecific Fairy? No, one of Tinkerbell’s Direct-to-Video friends. Army Guy? Try Call of Duty character.
Or maybe the old costumes of folk culture are undead – cultural zombies. It doesn’t get much folksier than a bedsheet ghost, but the one I saw on Minnesota (and the one I made myself several years ago) had eyes blacked out to mimic the exaggerated cartoon representation from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. This is a mass culture representation of what was a folk costume, half a century ago. Our ideas of folk culture are now filtered through mass culture – why wait for Grandma and Grandpa to tell us about Halloween in the 50s when the TV can do it so much faster?
Even a baby dressed as something nonspecific, a Devil or a Ladybug, has been bought into mass culture without its knowledge. These costumes are not pure and folksy: they are Party City’s standardized vision of a mass-marketable Demon or Bug. The mass media and the costume industry have so saturated our mindspace that there are few folk costumes left.
Except, that is, for the ones we make anew. For tucked in amongst the sea of Minions and Captains America, I noticed quite a few representatives of the New Mass Folk Culture, a passel of youth phenomena made possible by the internet. A genre of user-generated story called ‘Creepypasta’ is the new digital campfire tale. Its characters, not owned by any media conglomerate or designed by any one person, filter out into the real world via handmade costumes – Killer Jeff, Herobrine, and the granddaddy of the movement, Slenderman. All were present on Minnesota.
The market is fast to detect demand (already there have been unofficial Slenderman costumes on shelves for years), but the internet is almost certainly faster. And so new Mass Folk culture will rise and fall in a churn just as quick as the cycle through middle school, or the time between a child’s first solo trick-or-treat and their last.
-Christopher Finkle is a senior majoring in mathematics with a minor in computer science, and he is currently a member of Paul Croce’s seminar, Darwin and the Divine in American Culture