When I was growing up, my mom made my brother’s and my Halloween costumes by hand each year. We didn’t offer her an easy out, either. From the ages of 4 through 7, I demanded increasingly elaborate Disney princess get-ups, beginning with Ariel, wig and all, and ending with Belle in her enormous yellow ball gown. As I grew older, it became increasingly apparent that trying so hard for Halloween was not cool, and I shifted from being Hermione to being a generic witch to being the person who wears a blazer with a printed “Knope 2020” pinned to it two years in a row.
While my enthusiasm for Halloween costumes has dampened with age, I’ve always been fascinated with what feels like a subversive and dark holiday masquerading as a plastic, saccharine one. This year, I looked more deeply into the history of Halloween costumes and discovered there is more to them than meets the eye.
The practice of Halloween costumes as we know it dates back to a Celtic holiday called Samhain. In pre-Christian eras, it was believed to be a time when the veil between worlds thinned and spirits walked among humans, causing mischief. People would wear frightening masks in hopes of blending in with the spirits, and in some cases people would play tricks on each other, blaming the gods.
By the 11th century, Christianity had reached the farthest edges of the British Isles, and the holiday was co-opted, serving as the basis for All Saints’ Day and All Hallows Eve. Despite its pagan origins, much of the holiday persisted, including the masks, but the focus shifted from restless spirits to a more general somber tone surrounding departed loved ones. The veil was still thinner, but now souls were passing through rather than monsters and mischievous gods.
In the 18th century, when Scottish and Irish immigrants made their way to the United States, the syncretist Halloween was firmly established, and they carried it with them overseas where it took root readily. Here still the costume elements remained, but Americans, in an ironic return to the holiday’s origins, saw an evening where everyone wore a mask as the perfect opportunity to wreak havoc and commit crime. Hence, pictures of American Halloween costumes from the first half of the 20th century and earlier are often genuinely unsettling. The costumes were still mainly masks, the themes were still rooted in a macabre tone connected to ghosts and the object was to be unrecognizable.
The veil was still thinner, but now souls were passing through rather than monsters and mischievous gods.
By the 1940s, many towns had grown tired of the annual slew of crime and trouble, and Chicago went so far as to try to cancel the observance of Halloween altogether. Ultimately, the solution was simple: Shift the target of Halloween from adults to children. Halloween costumes and festivities were now in the domain of kids.
It was in this spirit that Ernie DeBaca, the owner of a little San Francisco store called Cliff’s Variety, hosted the first Castro Halloween parade in the 1940s. This parade, geared toward the children in the then-quiet Italian and Irish district, included a papier-mache dinosaur and a pie-eating contest. They continued this into the 1960s, but the Castro was changing.
In a time when queerness was not only looked down upon but also illegal, it is perhaps not surprising that Halloween emerged as a particularly important night for the LGBTQ+ community. It is a holiday in which nobody questions what anyone is wearing or how they look; they’re simply in costume. Ironically, when most of the celebrants are taking a night to be someone else without question, queer folks can be truer to themselves without fear.
In the 1960s, gay celebrations of Halloween began to quietly take root. DeBaca, not oblivious to the changes happening around him, chose to embrace them, and Cliffs became the first straight-owned business in San Francisco to hire openly gay employees. And so, the dinosaur-led Halloween parades met a quiet end in 1980, overtaken by the far more adult festivities which had grown in fervor over the years.
The newly founded Sisters of Perpetual indulgence took over the Halloween parade from Cliff’s at the end of DeBaca’s life. The parade grew, and by the 1990s it was attended in the thousands, bringing with it new complications, including homophobic violence. By 1995, the Sisters felt the event was no longer safe and stopped organizing it.
Castro Halloween celebrations continued in the streets, with people coming from out of town looking to have a good time, to gawk and, tragically, to bring chaos and violence. By the 2000s, attendance was in the hundreds of thousands, and by 2006, despite the city’s attempts to corral the event with stricter regulations and proper city ordinance, gunfire rang out by 11 p.m. There were nine people shot and two taken to a hospital, and, the following year, San Francisco took drastic measures to prevent any sort of gathering in the Castro on Halloween night. Bars were closed early and streets were blocked off, and so the then-decades-old tradition of a Castro Halloween ended abruptly.
However, the effects had already taken root across the country. Halloween was no longer an exclusively children’s holiday: Adults across the country dressed up and celebrated. The reason I, as a grown woman, am asked earnestly what I’ll be for Halloween is thanks to those folks in the Castro who saw an opportunity to be themselves without persecution for one night a year, and, once more, a dominant culture took what it wanted from Halloween and left the rest to be lost to history.
Despite its sad end, there is something deeply lovely about this story. The fact that a group of my queer forefolk in my own backyard saw the same subversive potential in Halloween that I did and made something liberatory and beautiful out of it is astonishing and wonderful.
Halloween only comes to us all these centuries later, even after so many other European pagan holidays have been lost, because so many different groups were able to see something remarkable in it and map their own beliefs and values onto it. It’s flawed and messy, but it’s also so unbelievably human.