Each time I attempt to conduct an appearance based social experiment, it seems I come away with more insights into my own psyche than that of society on a whole. Perhaps that's because testing things like how people react to Halloween costumes in bars is likely to yield similar reactions to what we experience when wearing overlapping styles day to day. Snap judgments aren't particularly surprising, yet when we deal with them regularly— even during a holiday that revolves around shedding your persona entirely — they can cause us to question various parts of our identities.
Over the course of one night (the Friday of Halloween weekend), I decided to go to three different bars in three different Halloween costumes to judge the way people reacted to me, based solely upon my physical appearance. To eliminate some potential variables, I traveled within a few blocks' radius in the same town and brought with me a group of four friends, in slightly more subtle costumes than my own.
In order to keep things less about personality and more about visual/snap judgments, I spoke only casually with whomever we came across, sticking primarily to my social group. As the night progressed, we gathered notes on the eye contact, commentary, and unprompted interactions people from each bar had about or with me. My hypothesis was that if I wore a sexy costume, a scary/strange costume, and a silly costume to three different bars, the sexy costume would garner the most reactions.
Costume 1: Sexy
I happen to have a small selection of "sexy (insert occupation here)" costumes lying around. I haven't worn them since my mid-20s. However, this seemed like a worthwhile opportunity to tackle that discomfort in the name of science, so I went with The Sexy Cop.
I'm not sure that the sexy vibe came across as I sauntered into the first bar (a rather swanky, small town martini lounge, where the few costumes around were subtler than my own), but I did begin the night with a handful of looks, both pointed and subtle.
As I attempted to make myself visible (perched on a couch arm), I caught many men glancing my way, but quickly averting their gaze whenever I met their eyes — at least initially. As time went on, one or two made prolonged eye contact, but on a whole, I got the sense that they were either regarding me as eye candy or an oddity, and could sense my discomfort.
Interestingly enough, the strongest response was from the women of this bar. There were a few subtle but prolonged glances and whispers, and as a friend and I were having a casual conversation with the bouncer at the front of the bar, two women made their opinions abundantly clear. As they made their exit, the first walked past me and under her breath let slip the word "slut," while the second, equally subtly but almost comically, exclaimed, "Slutty, slut, slut." Then they were gone. I can honestly say it's one of the strangest encounters I've had in a social situation since high school.
Costume 2: Strange/Scary
If you're a fan of Silent Hill, you'll likely recognize this costume. If you're not, you'll probably think it's just a strange as most of the people we encountered in bar number two. Though others there were dressed up, my look was certainly the most OTT. After a quick costume change and a brisk walk in the chilly air, we entered this casual pizza joint with an adjacent pub. I walked in, fully masked and a bit creepy, and right of the bat the group I was with noticed a variety of eyes on me.
As we bellied up to the bar, my mask still donned, two friends overheard a conversation between patrons in which one pointedly looked at me and said to the other, "And here come the freaks!" During the rest of our time at that location, a variety of patrons stared pointedly and had hushed conversations while motioning in my direction.
Costume 3: Silly
In the time honored tradition of Halloween and face paint, I took to the last bar wearing gray jeans, a gray fleece, a little gray eared hat, and, of course, the paint. This year's cute/silly face paint was fairly juvenile in appearance, and looked like something between a cat and a bear. Again, there were costumes floating about — but this time mine was not as obvious as it had been.
Not surprisingly, I got a few casual smiles, and met many more friendly attitudes. However, interaction was low, and no one went out of their way to stare or comment. Whether that was due to the time of night or the lackluster nature of the costume, I'm not entirely sure. But I think it goes to show that silly tends to fly right under the radar in most cases. People are rather inclined to shrug these costumes off as inconsequential, unless they are genuinely funny or endearing in some way.
So What Do Humans Think About These Costumes?
On a whole, I would venture to conclude that my hypothesis was neither entirely correct nor incorrect. While the sexy costume garnered a pretty significant reaction, so did the scary/strange one. As I imagined would be the case, my greatest discoveries were internal and reflected how I perceived myself in each look.
Oddly enough, I felt most comfortable this year in the Silent Hill nurse outfit, as it was unique and didn't fit into a contrived box of standard Halloween ensembles you might find at a retailer (also, a big thanks to my friend Brittany who made that costume when the first Silent Hill movie came out, and let me borrow it this year). However, it's interesting to note that both sensuality and horror derive similar levels of reaction from humans, even though all three categories are based off of forms of amusement and stimulation.
In terms of cultural observation, well, I'd venture to say that we still have a penchant for slut shaming as well as some kind of fear about all things perceived as weird or kooky. And unfortunately, Halloween still sees those lines of thought come to the surface.
Images: Jen Schildgen