Looking Forward to Tricks, Treats and Deindividuation

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By Kristine Keller and Marisa Polansky

Downtown doesn't really need a designated day devoted to dressing like Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga or Danny Zuko, but just because we don't need it doesn't mean we won't embrace it. It's human nature to dream of being someone else entirely. The popularity of Halloween isn't the candy, the creepy or even the costumes. It's the freedom we acquire from shedding the old and becoming the new.

One night, tired of looking at our white walls and inspired by Penélope Cruz's infectiously bold performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, we interpreted Jackson Pollock through wide and talentless fingers and threw paint at our walls. The next morning, we wordlessly and collectively decided the only thing worth keeping from the night before was our memories.

At Home Depot, in the midst of choosing between eggshell and sand, a plucky associate checked our paint-stained hands and said, "Painters huh? Let me show you where we keep our good brushes." We purchased an entire set. We knew, of course, that one painting does not a painter make, but something about having this stranger believe it made us believe it. If only for a moment. Halloween is like that moment 1,440 times in a row.

As many a good parent would say, the only thing that matters is what you think about you. However, as many a person living in the real world would say, what other people think about you matters a whole hell of a lot. Just ask the participants of the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment. The study made a roar in the '70s when social psychologist Phillip Zimbardo selected 24 psychologically healthy males and randomly assigned half to play the role of "prisoner" and the other half to play the role of "guard" in a simulated prison.

Though there were no discernible differences between the two groups of participants before the study, once they were administered labels and costumes and placed in a prison context, their fictitious entities soon became a frightening reality. The guards took their position to the extreme and showed a flagrant disregard for the rights of the prisoners with verbal assaults, public humiliation and a total lack of scruples. In concordance, the prisoners succumbed to their new roles as well. Each prisoner was stripped of their birth name and only given an ID number to be used throughout the study-prisoners became emotionally drained and riots ensued. The study was terminated after only six days.

Though the experiment raised eyebrows and ethical concerns everywhere, it brought forth a powerful notion: the theory of deindividuation. This theory is usually used to describe the feeling of anonymity and loss of self-identity that individuals take on when given a certain label or name in the context of a sizable group. When placed in a group setting, individuals are less accountable for their actions and have the opportunity to relish behaviors that they would not have ordinarily been able to commit.

On All Hallow's Eve, deindividuation occurs the moment you put on your Native American headdress and do a synchronized dance next to a construction worker and policeman. With the right costume and attitude, anyone has the opportunity to become who they've always wanted to be, whether it's a painter, prisoner, princess or president. Not only do you get to dress like a fantasy, but your behaviors, actions and emotions are predicated on that new idea of yourself. This new identity gives the identifier the courage and ammunition to behave the way the costume necessitates. Moreover, the more we are treated like a naughty secretary, Michele Bachmann or a WWE wrestler, the more we will inhabit that persona.

In previous years, we've witnessed witches fly, cheerleaders shout affirmations and sailors open doors, but we can't help but wonder if it's not just the magic of Halloween but rather, the magic of New York City. After all, there is no place better suited for maintaining your anonymity than the 917. Freedom comes from reinvention and the notion of possibility is paved into the sidewalks of this city. There's no one to tell you that you can't be who you want to be. Don't wait for someone to give you a label.

We say, why not take a cue from Oct. 31 and have the fortitude to be who you dream and let New York be your mask. Of course, our brushes have been long forgotten behind dust and dish detergent and we haven't painted a thing since that fateful night, but we just may have thought of this year's costume. Or better yet, a new career.

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