My love of mask-making probably began the Halloween my parents made my brother an Ace Frehley costume. I’m not sure which year it was, but it had to be the very late seventies when his then-favorite band KISS blew up, penetrating even our remote Midwest town with their makeup and blood-spitting and catchy jams played on smoking guitars shaped like weapons. The band was essentially a troupe of trick-or-treaters from the beginning, and it’s not surprising that many kids rang their neighbors’ doors on Halloween ready to Shout It Out Loud.
It’s also not surprising why my brother chose to dress up as the band member he did. Paul Stanley, with his aggressively hairy chest, would have been a bold choice for a middle-schooler in those days, and, as far as I can tell, nobody really knew how to be Gene Simmons (and nobody still does). Cat-faced drummer Peter Criss was, well, the drummer, parked in back, almost never speaking, musically important but not a huge part of the spectacle. But lead guitarist “Space Ace” Frehley had a spaceman theme to his getup, and he could actually shred, which made him a prime target of boy emulation.
My brother’s Ace Frehley was, not to oversell it or anything, simply awesome. My parents glittered huge swoops of paper to make a sparkly triangle for his shoulders and exaggerated cuffs for his wrists. They used paper and foil to convert his off-brand moon boots into platform shoes truly worthy of moons. And, of course, they painted his face just like Ace, white with silver star-things exploding around each eye. I’m sure that he had some sort of guitar, too, probably cardboard with butcher-twine strings, and I want to say that he had a wig hiding his short blonde hair under metal-length black. I don’t remember the actual trick-or-treating or party going or whatever it was he did while Ace; I only remember the making and what he became.
My wife and I love making costumes, too. The first Halloween with both our kids, Q and The Boy, we dressed them up as a Dalmatian and a firefighter. My wife sewed black spots to a white onesie and black socks to an old hat for ears. For The Boy, she turned a plastic soda bottle, clothespin, and some red paint into a remarkably realistic fire extinguisher. There was the robot year, with The Boy’s suit made out of boxes and brass brads and curled wires and lights that really flashed. Or the time The Boy wanted to be a green plastic army man, and we coated one of my wife’s old jackets in four cans of spray paint to make it convincingly shiny and stiff. Even when the kids have favored more off-the-rack options like skeleton, witch, fortune teller, and ninja, we embellish. The ninja year, my wife made arrest-worthy shuriken out of five minutes on the Internet and some foil.
I’m not exactly sure why we do this, why we bother each year for just a few hours of dress up. Perhaps we have too many reasons: our parents’ history of going all out, dissatisfaction with store costumes, the candy haul, or just the rare opportunity to make ourselves into makers of things.
Why we like to wear masks is a deeper question, of course, one draped in a host of tropes. I’ve never really been that convinced by the usual claim that we use masks to hide our true selves. Kids, after all, love to dress up, and they are only beginning to have something of the required sort to hide. The kids, I think, have it right — masks allow us not so much to hide from something as to become something else altogether. Some nights, dressing as a seventies rock star is enough to be a seventies rock star.
Halloween, too, has its own, old story. Like many of our traditions, this one seems to have been tied to the harvest and handed down (or up) from pagans — the Celts or maybe the Welsh or the Scots or the Druids scaring everyone from the woods — then co-opted by Catholics and vilified, inevitably, by Protestants. People supposedly believed that ghosts and ghouls appeared on the last night of the Celtic year to visit their former homes, and the living had to scare or fool them back under until the saints arrived. Funny, then, that we dress up our children and encourage them out into the night to deal with the dead. Then again, perhaps we make masks for children (and ourselves) so that we might somehow bring close those who we can now only remember.
We have lost so many, and we don’t know where they’ve gone.