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Halloween costumes are about dressing as someone else. I decided to go as my own fears instead.

Halloween can be the perfect time to step outside yourself and embrace the parts you usually shy away from.

Do you ever get tired of yourself?

As an adult, it’s easy to become disenchanted with our lives. We built them through decades of work, compromise, setbacks, and serendipity. They are our making. But even if we like them, it’s easy to sometimes want out.

Every Halloween, we have the opportunity to take a break from being so us, to escape our neurosis du jour and embody something that’s nicer just because it’s different. Costuming, to that end, can be cathartic. And stepping outside ourselves can make us grateful, when the party is over and our costumes are heaped on the floor, to return to who we really are, refreshed.

For the last three Halloweens, I’ve used my personal fears as artistic prompts: “repellant,” “prickly,” “obtrusive,” “delicate.” I crafted my baggage into an exoskeleton, got friendly with it, and got over it. This approach to Halloween is cleansing, and yielded some excellent costumes. I encourage you to try the same.

Here are my most recent Halloween creations and why I needed them at the time:

In 2015, I needed to be repellent

Everyone will tell you how “nice” I am. I was born that way — a gay little church bell of a boy. I will die sweet and polite too. I like being “nice.” But the maintenance of sweetness requires a lot of time spent being charming and passive, diluting myself to palatability. I was tired of it.

I’d also ended my biggest relationship yet and was almost-almost dating. Not ready to sleep with the world just yet, but definitely thinking about it. I could foresee how much energy I would put into attracting men. Their attention and approval would soon feel so vital. I began pre-worrying about how I might market or repackage myself to appeal to them, how I’d shave off my best and weirdest corners to secure second dates. I became pre-annoyed.

The idea of repelling prospective dudes terrified me. It was exactly what I needed to do.

I’d never been scary in my life. But I needed to freak people out, to have them intrigued by me but too terrified to approach. I became Medusa.

Joe Wadlington

I grew up crafting; I think I learned how to write cursive in puff paint before I did it in pencil. So sewing sheer, black fabric into a homemade Greek-tunic-thing was easy for me. But I’d never done intense makeup, and was excited to try. I watched a dozen mermaid, snake, and fish scale make up tutorials on YouTube.

Then I covered my face, chest and arms in light green paint, set it with powder, and used squares of fishnet as a stencil for the top layer of black. It was surprisingly easy and quick.

The snake wig took several failed attempts. (Plastic snakes were too heavy; foam wasn’t serpentine enough.) I made the final version out of a swim cap that I poked wire through. I bent the wire into snake shapes, then hot glued plastic tubing around each strand. This process covered my fingers with tiny burns and wire cuts. I licked off the blood and thought about gorgons.

The wig was more delicate than I liked, but the snakes moved and shook when I walked. They looked alive. The wig missteps made this what would be my most expensive Halloween costume, at about $70 for materials.

The inspiration board for my Medusa costume.
Joe Wadlington

I had colored contacts that gleamed very pale in the light. When I strutted (and I strutted) through the party, the cape billowed behind me, the snakes writhed, the crowd moved out of my way, repelled. They were stone and I was lightning. I wanted to strut my freaky ass across the entire city. I would’ve slept in the fangs if I hadn’t been worried I’d choke in my sleep.

Now I look at the picture and think, “Oh that was you being ‘scary’? That’s it??” But then I remember how I felt at the time and smile. It was me being scary. And it worked. My mean streak is not wide, but it was satiated.

In 2016, I needed to be prickly

I did start dating and being sweet again. And it didn’t work out for me. The next Halloween found me more heartbroken than ever — embittered, actually. Now I wasn’t so focused on being repellant as being completely unapproachable. I didn’t need people to run from me. In fact, I didn’t need people at all.

I wanted to look as barren, independent, and prickly as I felt deep down. And I had a lot of green paint left over from Medusa. I became a cactus.

Joe Wadlington

I spent the month communing with pictures of cacti. I watched contouring videos and painted my face doing the opposite of everything they said, so that it would look flat and rectangular. I painted my hair white like cactus fuzz and popped the fangs back in.

The arm and chest pieces were all paper mache, which I had never done before and really enjoyed. I spray and hand-painted it to get the texture right. The cacti in the pot were carved floral foam — light to carry and softer crushed against my stomach. The plastic pot was a plastic pot. It limited my stride to about 8 inches. I could not sit down or pee, but no matter, I was a desert. The materials cost about $50 total, most of that going to paint and floral foam.

The inspo for my cactus costume.
Joe Wadlington

The spikes were spray-painted toothpicks hot glued into the paper mache. They were much hardier and more dangerous than I expected — which was thrilling! My friends and I were actually worried that security wouldn’t let me into the party we planned to go to. But they nervously did.

We went to a warehouse party with thousands of people but I was able to walk from the back of the packed room to the front as if it were empty. People divided out of my way. The costume demanded separation, solitude. I felt like I owned not only my body but a wide perimeter around it.

After five hours of performative desert, I was newly ready to be close to people. To get a real hug and not hurt the person on the other end.

In 2017, I needed to be obtrusive.

Before 2017, I didn’t know that anger could be subcutaneous — that you could be angry all the time, the way magma stays on fire all the time. I spent the year scrolling more than reading, reacting more than thinking, and slowly sacrificing my mind, as if it would help anyone.

I also live in a city, with two roommates and a crowded subway commute. So I’m constantly making sure I’m not in someone’s way. I look for methods to make myself small and convenient. I’m always on the run.

These mental and physical concessions were wearing on me. I wanted to be huge, non-negotiable, resistant. I wanted to slow down and freeze over. I became an iceberg.

Joe Wadlington

My first design for this costume was simply a gigantic paper mache triangle with my head poking out of the top. But unfortunately, I did not have a friend with a flatbed truck willing to cart me to the party and, later, home. And I didn’t think the venue would let me scuttle through their service entrance. So I readjusted my vision to be ADA- and cab-compliant.

It was soothing to work in cool tones, to make things that were icy and quiet-feeling. After the cactus, I felt confident with paper mache. So, while building the ice mountain took the most time, it was easy work.

I wanted my face to be more geometric and crystalline so I made icy-looking fake chins and cheekbones by carving up cooled hot glue. It was light, so I could glue it to my face with spirit gum (the strong but washable stuff people use to put on prosthetics like elf ears). I painted many thin layers of liquid latex on to the edges of the hot glue pieces to blend them into my skin. I was shocked and pleased with how upsetting it made my face!

An initial sketch of my iceberg costume.
Joe Wadlington

I used a mix of sheer fabric and canvas for the below-the-water-ice-illusion. It’s just hot glued to the bottom of the paper mache. When I spun, the ocean swung around me like a whirlpool. It was the cheapest costume of these three. I only spent $40 on materials.

As the iceberg, I moved at a glacial pace. I took the most circuitous route everywhere, usually cutting friend groups in half. People smiled at me and then I’d flash my fangs or click those (hot glue) ice claws and they would cower. (And if you’ve never had a man cower in front of you — I cannot recommend it enough!)

I slowed down. I did not negotiate. I took up space. It was exactly what I needed.

In 2018, I need to be delicate

So what the hell am I going to be this year?

I have emotionally scabbed over. I’m tempted to channel all the darkness in the world and myself into a disturbing costume, to wear my pain around and make people gaze upon something truly horrifying.

I’ve thought about going as a collapsing beehive or something charred and tumorous, like a black lung. I certainly feel as upsetting as those things, and they’d probably be really cathartic to build.

But I have to follow my prompt and be what I need, not what I am. So I’m not going to be scary this year; things are scary enough. I need to be light and tender, to convince myself it’s still possible. I need to be something a bit hopeful. I’m going to be a dandelion.