Psychoanalyzing 10 Popular Halloween Costumes

Think that French maid costume is meaningless fun? Psychologists say it tells us something about you.

A close up of a vampire's teeth.
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On any other day of the year, a French maid is just a French maid. Batman, just Batman. But on Halloween—she's sexually repressed and flaunting her inner vixen. He clings to fantasies about being an all-powerful superhero. Indeed, experts say our Halloween costumes often aren't random choices. They reveal hidden personality traits, reflecting our inner urges on the one day it's okay to abandon societal rules and regulations.

"It's an opportunity to express things we're normally not allowed to express," says G. Dennis Rains, a psychology professor at Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pa. "It's permission to let your underside or dark side come out. We can release what we normally keep under wraps." He points out that, despite its scary overtones, Halloween is a friendly holiday—when else do strangers invite us into their homes with such ease? It also brings a sense of anonymity that motivates us to show our wild, untamed side.

In a way, Halloween is a social lubricant that grants us the freedom and courage to "act out," says psychologist J. Buzz Von Ornsteiner, project director of the Mental Health Court Advocacy Program in Brooklyn, N.Y. "It allows us to experiment with fantasies and needs we normally keep oppressed," he adds. "We can finally unleash them—incognito. It makes us feel like we can do whatever we want, without any consequences or repercussions." (Cautionary note: Halloween isn't always repercussion-free. Photos of controversial costumes have made their way onto Facebook, costing the wearers their jobs.)

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Sally Foster, a recently retired psychology professor and dean, organizes a Halloween party each year at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, Calif. More fun than the requisite trick-or-treating? Analyzing student and faculty costumes. "The adults who wear really sexy costumes are usually the ones who are mild-mannered in their daily life—modest people who aren't overtly sexual," Foster says. She recalls one such woman who dressed as a black cat, purring her way through the night in a body-hugging costume. "Everyone wanted to touch her. Her costume was just so luscious," Foster says. "She got to live out an aspect of herself that she ordinarily wouldn't show."

Often, we don't realize why we're selecting certain costumes. If people ask us, we'll likely say we don't know. We're typically motivated by subconscious forces that may be more evident to others than to ourselves, experts say. And of course, the psychology of Halloween costumes is a generalization: Not every sexy nurse is dying to debut a secret seductive side. Still, it makes for provocative analysis. Consider psychologists' interpretations of these 10 popular costumes:

Political figures. Expect to see lots of Mitt Romneys and Barack Obamas roaming the streets this year. "People dress up as those they emulate or abhor," Foster says. "And if one of those guys makes a great faux paux, you might especially see people dressing up as him to mock him." That extends to athletes, too; say, the NFL payer who cost his team the Superbowl. Often, we go as celebrities or newsmakers to display our knowledge of current events: We want our peers to consider us smart, trendy, and "with it." Yup, that means you'll be rubbing shoulders, or feathers, with plenty of Big Birds this year.

Kids' costumes. Children's choices tend to mimic traditional gender roles. "Kids are drawn to things they want to be, whether it's a superhero for a boy or a princess for a girl," says clinical psychologist Josh Hooberman, who has a private practice in New York. "Kids want to be strong and able to face the world, and in a way, Halloween costumes are about wish-fulfillment."

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Bedbugs. Over the past few years, the tiny bloodsuckers have sparked widespread panic in New York and elsewhere. Von Ornsteiner says he's seen plenty of clients with bedbug-related stress and fear. One way of coping? Dressing up as the pests for Halloween. "Bedbugs are kind of like vampires: They're nocturnal, they suck our blood and sleep with us at night, and we can only destroy them by freezing them," Von Ornsteiner says. "Dressing up as them helps conquer our fear, because we're gaining control over it."