Boyhood, in seven costumes
The evolving spirit of Halloween reveals a startling trend.
My kids are pumped for Halloween.
It’s their favorite holiday, though I suspect that this is not unusual among children; Halloween is a holiday dedicated to playing dress-up, staying up past your bedtime, and bothering strangers for candy. There’s no expectation of putting on nice clothes, traveling to see relatives, sitting through a church service or anything. Of course they love it. Heck, I’m an adult and it’s a solid top-two holiday for me; really, the biggest difference between my children and I is how much more I enjoy eating stuffing.
They talk about Halloween—and what they’re going to be for Halloween—essentially year-round. It’s not at all surprising to hear them chiming in from the backseat on the way to school to tell me that they’ve decided this year they’re going to be a leopard or a chipmunk or Dog-Man or the anaconda from Anaconda (1997) for Halloween. I will offer my usual support to them, and then explain that it is March and we can hold off a little bit before we mark their selections in ink.
The thing about these conversations is, although they’re serious and heartfelt, they are no means binding. If I were to take the children at their word and attempt to either purchase or make the costume they’ve said they wanted myself, I would likely go through a weeks-long ordeal of procurement and/or creation, only for them to have changed their minds by the time said costume is in hand.
Children are capricious, and we must both respect and fear that.
No, when October rolls around, there’s only one real solution, and that’s to take them to Spirit Halloween, the last true remaining brick-and-mortar retail experience.
I love Spirit Halloween stores; they appear overnight from the ashes of a Sears or JC Penney or Saks 5th Avenue Outlet Store, sell costumes for exactly one month, and then disappear before dawn on November 1st, leaving no trace or forwarding address. They make zero promises of satisfaction, have exactly two employees per store, no public restroom, and they are the backbone of the American economy.
I took my children to one such store this weekend, and they chose two costumes that made them very happy and bore no resemblance to the past 12 months of discussion. My daughter elected to be Wonder Woman, which I applaud, and my son… well, my son is six now, and I’ve realized that the contours of his maturation from baby to boy are becoming visible in the seven Halloween costumes he’s had to date.
One year is a data point. Two years is statistical noise. Seven years, we can plot a trendline, and it’s not unlike the one seen in this memorable tweet:
I’d like to walk you along this path as it’s unfurled from 2015 to present.
The great thing about babies is, for as much upheaval as they throw your life into, they are essentially objects for at least the first six months, if not longer. You can set them somewhere and they will stay there, and you can decorate them however you see fit. Do you remember that roughly-’90s suburban trend of placing concrete geese on one’s porch and regularly changing their costumes? Babies on Halloween are like that. You can dress them as a pumpkin or a soccer ball or even a concrete goose; they will not care or even notice so long as you feed them, change them, and support their head and neck, things you should be doing regardless. He was a goldfish this year. This was a good time in one’s life to be a goldfish, because legs screw up the visual of being a fish, but he wasn’t using them yet, so the costume could simply be a bag.
It was very cute.
We’re staying cute here, and there’s a simple reason: these are the Mom Chooses years. (Or Dad. But mostly Mom.) This is the narrow window of time where, as a parent, you can bring whatever costume that you want home and the kid will allow themself to be dressed in it. Embrace this time, because in the blink of an eye they will be tossing aside the hair from their eyes and scoffing at how lame you are for not knowing that their costume is The Poop from Fortnite, and you will not understand anything that is happening other than to feel the cold hand of time on your shoulder.
He was very cute as a bumblebee.
Again, still our choice, and still adorable. This was a tacit admission of a universal truth: all boys are primates. Technically and scientifically speaking, all humans regardless of gender are, but only boys truly embrace it in the “primate house” sense: they smell bad, climb trees, fling feces, examine their genitalia at the worst possible social times, and are known to steal food from unsuspecting tourists.
As the Mom Chooses years waned, this was a sign to the world that we understood what we have brought into it, and that we are sorry.
Confusing, huh? Well, that’s what happens when you bring in a new showrunner in Season Four. This was the first year he was old enough to select costumes himself, and in walking around a Spirit Halloween store, he decided that he liked the glow-in-the-dark skeleton costume, and also pair of butterfly wings. He said both of these things with absolute confidence, so we purchased them for him, and the hybrid costume was a rousing success.
Also, the skeleton costume was really just a pair of pajamas, which is a great way of stretching the value of an otherwise single-use garment—he wore those skeleton pajamas for a solid eighteen months. I don’t just preach this strategy, I live it: I was Teen Wolf for Halloween in 2009 and regularly slept in those gym shorts until the elastic finally gave out in 2018.
Every boy will have a pirate phase at some point, whether it’s at age 4, age 8, or age 48. It’s like getting your wisdom teeth out. It’s easiest for everyone if you get it out of the way early, but ultimately you don’t have any control over the timing.
2020: Spider-Man (Miles Morales version)
I want to take this moment to discuss how Halloween costumes have evolved—namely, I do not recall realistic fake muscles having been an option when I was a child. I would have felt so cool. In reality, it just makes kids look like they’re in the Little Buff Boys sketch from I Think You Should Leave Season 2, but they don’t know that. I am mad that this opportunity was not afforded to my generation, but the world is also much hotter now than it was in 1987, so I guess I’ll let them have this one win.
You will notice that over the last few years, the costumes have been getting perceptibly more aggressive. We are no longer in the province of bumblebees, even if we are technically still in the same phylum. Something is changing.
He hemmed and hawed a bit as we walked around the hastily-converted outlet mall store this weekend. The animals were too cute, the professions (firefighter, policeman, doctor, architect, etc) too boring, the superhero stuff too last year.
Then he saw the rack of swords, and the die was cast. He had to be a ninja. His mother and I were/are mildly concerned about the culturally appropriative undertones of such a choice, but the costume he chose is more Mortal Kombat than anything resembling anyone’s history, and that’s all beside the point to a six-year-old. We would be foolish to fight him on it, and not only because he’s now holding two swords.
He has now entered The Violence Years, a phase that will last multiple years and not end until he becomes an irony-poisoned teenager who is Too Cool For Halloween, or perhaps ever. The costume, much like the monkey of four years prior, is simply an admission of who he already is, and that everything in his hand is already a sword to him, whether it be a wrapping paper tube, a broomstick, a large cucumber or a surprisingly-long purpose-built slab of Legos, so we might as well let him have a real (fake) one. (Or two.)
Childhood happens in the blink of an eye, though the changes are barely perceptible from day to day. To us, six years is nothing; I’ve changed jobs once during that time, and we’ve moved houses once, but we’re largely the same people as we were in 2015, albeit a little grayer and sorer. In that same brief window, though, this child has evolved from a goldfish to a bumblebee to a monkey to a skeleton, pirate, superhero and ninja, and seeing it happen is stunning to behold.
It won’t be long before both he and our daughter are both running around the neighborhood without us, far too big to need Mom and Dad to pull a wagon as little legs tire and pillowcases strain with pounds of chocolate and candy. I know these years are short, because I can already see the trendline pointing off into the future.
I’m going to enjoy it while I can, and I’m probably going to play with those swords after he falls asleep tonight.
After all, deep down I’m still a monkey too.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Bonus postscript: I honestly cannot even remember why I did this or how I had the energy to do so, but here’s a picture of Holly dressed up as a pirate ship in 2019. I think it was actually for this newsletter, but I’ve published 354 of these to date and I only actually remember about a dozen of them, tops.
Also, 2019 feels as distant as the fall of Rome. Nevertheless.
This costume lasted for exactly 43 seconds before falling apart, but what a 43 seconds it was.
When my son finally got to the age where he could choose his own costume, we had four straight years of Brett Favre and after that it was two years of Derek Jeter before he went into his zombie years.
One year I made my daughter's costume. It was a box of popcorn. I was so proud of how it came out that I made her wear it for a full hour of trick or treating even though she kept tripping over herself in it. Bad mom.
Halloween is so great when your kids are little.
I was practically pounding my fists and chanting "GOLDFISH!" by the end of the post and if there had not been a picture, I would have rioted.