What Were You (for Halloween)?

As someone who was both very shy and very imaginative, Halloween was always an ordeal for me. I dreamed of wonderful costumes that often didn’t work out quite the way I had hoped.

Alchemist (Camera Shy Variation)

Alchemist (Camera Shy Variation)

In those days of old, Trick or Treating was an outdoor activity. As far as I know, there were none of the mall parties, church gatherings, or other indoor, structured activities that kids go to today. If there were, we certainly never attended any. Late October in Washington D.C could be balmy or brutally cold, so one never knew if a costume would need to be covered with a coat.

Detail, back of coat

Detail, back of coat

Oddly, enough, probably my fondest Halloween memory comes from when I was in high school. My sister, Ann, and I had (reluctantly) decided we were probably too old to go trick or treating. Our younger sister, Susan, had a friend to go with, so we couldn’t even use her needing an escort as an excuse to dress up.  We decided we would be “grown-up” and answer the door for the occasional trick or treater who labored up the steep hill that was our driveway.

However, as Halloween evening came on, we both felt the lack. I don’t even recall which of us had the impulse, but we decided that we could at least be dressed up when we answered the door. Ann dove into her copious hoard of make-up (she was always signing up for free introductory offers, then cancelling) and skillfully made us up as two of the members of the band KISS. She was the space alien (Ace Frehley’s role) and I was the cat (Peter Criss’s role).

Jeans, tee shirts, vests, and various odds and ends of jewelry made pretty good last-minute rock star costumes.  I still treasure the faded Polaroid someone snapped.

As I said, we’d figured we’d just answer the door for the occasional trick or treater. However, an adult neighbor — Leone Hollander — dropped by, found us dressed up with nowhere to go, and dragged us out.  I can’t remember if we rang many doorbells, but we certainly enjoyed being part of the magic of the night.

In the years that followed, I dressed up sometimes, sometimes not.  Halloween was evolving toward an adult social occasion, but if there were any big college-sponsored parties, I didn’t go.  A couple of years later, when I was in grad school, we had parties.  I have fond memories of Chuck (Charles E.) Gannon, in anticipation of current social trends, coming as a nerd, complete with pocket protector, and such wonderful acting skills, that initially I didn’t recognize him, even though he’d been coming over to my place pretty much weekly for years.

Except for a brief jaunt into what is now called “cosplay” at an SF convention when I lived in Virginia, I never did much with costumes outside of Halloween.  I suppose that’s why I look forward to the excuse.  Every few years, our friends Patricia Rogers and Scott Denning throw an amazing, astonishing, over-the-top Halloween party.  This year the theme was Mad Scientists and their creations.

Jim immediately decided that he would attend as a Mad Scientist version of an archeologist.  This involved him bedecking himself with every item he could hang on his belt. (Did you know that they make sheaths for trowels?)   He clipped on his “official” Area 51 badge, slung his “real” badge around his neck, and inserted a variety of green alien figures into his hatband and pocket.  He even brought a shovel.  (This ended up with him getting confused with several people who had shown up as grave diggers, but he handled the confusion with grace and style.)

In part because of some research I’ve been doing of late, I decided to go as a modern variation of the oldest mad scientist around: the Alchemist.  My friend, Dominique, kindly donated a lab coat and I set to work with stencils and Sharpy markers.  There are numerous interpretations of alchemy, so I decided to give a nod to several at once.

Alchemy is usually credited with having roots in Egypt.  (Many sources claim that “chem” is actually “Khem” – one of the names for the “black land” of Egypt.)  Therefore, in honor of this Egyptian heritage, I wrote my name in hieroglyphs (and English) on the upper pocket.  I also added a Horus to one sleeve and made an ankh the centerpiece of the back.

However, alchemy is also associated with China as well, so I labeled the two lower pockets with the ideograms for the two most commonly-sought items in alchemy: long life (or immortality) and wealth.  “Long life” was written in the auspicious color red, which is also the color traditionally associated with the Philosopher’s Stone.  “Wealth” was done in gold.  In each pocket I carried appropriate items: “gold” nuggets and a nicely sparkly red gem for the Philosopher’s Stone.

Traditionally, the two most important elements in alchemy are mercury – usually associated with a dragon – and sulfur – usually associated with a lion.  I added these to the front, and a unicorn (associated with purification and/or perfect transmutation) to the sleeve that did not already bear Horus,

I had many thoughts as to how I might adorn the back of the coat, but in the end I found myself attracted to a cryptic quotation: “Mystery glows in the rose bed and the secret is hidden in the rose.”  I wrote this in a curve over an ankh, then added roses (a very alchemical flower, fraught with occult meanings) of various colors to both front and back to tie the whole together.

I found a pendant with a phoenix (symbolic of the completed transformation).  Since college, I’d had a pair of cloisonné earrings, one of which was a six-pointed star, the other a crescent moon.  As these were also adorned with roses, they seemed the perfect final touch.

Scott and Patricia have many friends in the local SF/F writer community, so I was far from the only writer there in costume.  Walter Jon Williams was dashing as a khaki-clad explorer, complete with pith helmet and someone’s head in a bag.  His wife, Kathy Hedges, was elegant as a two-headed pumpkin monster.  George R.R. Martin came disguised in a classic Venetian carnival mask.  Steve (S.M.) and Jan Stirling wore lab coats, Jan adding a fetching green pageboy wig, that suited her astonishingly well.  Bob (Robert E.) Vardeman was obviously fresh from the dissecting lab; the amount of blood on his surgeon’s cap made one wonder if he might have been indulging in a transplant.  Joan Saberhagen was very much in keeping with modern recycling trends, and carried a bag soliciting spare parts for her next monster.  Vic Milan was a calmly creepy scientist.

I’m sure I’m forgetting some – and that I missed others, since the party was very, very, very well attended.

So what were you for Halloween?  Do you have any fond memories of costumes past?

4 Responses to “What Were You (for Halloween)?”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    I didn’t dress up this year. For some reason, one of my favorite musicians, Jake Shimabukuro decided to have a concert on Halloween, so we went there instead.

    If you’ve never heard of him, here’s the TED talk he gave in 2010. He’s gotten better since then.

  2. Dogteam Says:

    I was a wolf. *shrugs*
    Same as always. Not very imaginative, but people always get a kick out of the costume (see Facebook)
    I like your alchemist, very thought provoking.

  3. Paul Says:

    As with much else, my first hearing of alchemy was in a long-ago comic book, All-Star Comics, as I recall. Each issue featured an adventure of The Justice Society of America (precursor to the later Justice League…). The Alchemist was the issue’s villain, and the explanation of alchemy was only halfway right, but it did whet my appetite to read about it later when I found a mention of it.

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