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.)
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."
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."
Tarzan. Tarzan and Jane swung into your party, huh, flaunting their abs? These folks probably invest a lot of time and energy in their bodies, and perhaps they feel unappreciated or like no one cares how much iron they can pump. Halloween provides a chance to shine.
Snooki. Long, dark hair with a pouf. Tight minidress, preferably in cheetah print—or short shorts and a white tank with the Italian flag. Larger-than-life sunglasses, a pile of silver necklaces, and platform shoes. You're Jersey Shore star Snooki. "She can be very rude and disrespectful, but she goes to the beat of her own drum," Von Ornsteiner says. "Although people might find that shocking, there's an element in us that wishes we had the freedom to be like that. We either admire or resent her, because we want to be able to do whatever we want, like she does."
The Grim Reaper. We're drawn to what frightens us. By dressing up as what we fear, we feel protected from it; we diminish its power. If we become it, the thinking goes, we can't be hurt by it.
Dominatrix nun. Foster showed up at one of her annual Halloween parties in traditional nunwear on top—and a sultry leather skirt. She wore high-heeled boots and carried handcuffs and a whip. "It was a mix of the pure and the overly submissive," she says. "If I wanted to psychoanalyze myself, both of those urges are within me. Which part of my sexuality is more important? And that conflict was displayed very neatly."
Princess. Taking that Cinderella or Snow White dress for another whirl? You may yearn to return to early innocence, when life was safe and simple. Women who dress as princesses are often subconsciously reverting to childhood, a time defined by fairy tales and the belief that Prince Charming was waiting. "We want to recapture that, or live it out again," Von Ornsteiner says. "It's very romantic."
Spiderman. Men who dress up as superheroes often foster childlike fantasies of saving the world and extinguishing evil. Such costumes embody the desire to be brave, strong, and admired. Sometimes, men wear these costumes to compensate for feelings of inadequacy; other times, they're simply expressing affection for the character.
Vampires. The black cape, red lips, splattered blood. "There's an underlying sexual passion about vampires—there's seduction, in a predatory manner," Von Ornsteiner says. Neck-biting, for example, is a form of intimate contact often linked with gaining control over another person. It's an appealing premise we often feel safe expressing only on Halloween.
And, of course, you'll see hordes of women wearing … very little. That's OK—364 days of the year, they may lead repressed lives, and Halloween presents an opportunity for much-desired attention, Von Ornsteiner says. "It's a great, fantastic holiday," he adds. "You get to return to your inner child, or unleash some emotional burdens, or get over your fears. You can act in the manner you wish you could act in—but can't, since you really don't live a life of true abandonment. Once a year, you get to do that."