What your Halloween costume says about you

Metro Detroit psychologists weigh in on the meaning behind witch, superhero and sexy costume choices.

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Dr. Rose Moten has been a witch, pirate and Spanish Senorita. Last year, she was Batgirl. The year before that, a cat.

“I’ve been Elvis before, if you can imagine a black female Elvis,” she says, laughing. “I’m open to everything.”

The Farmington Hills-based psychologist doesn’t know what she’ll be yet for Halloween this year, “but trust me,” she says, “I will be dressing up.”

“I come from a family where we continue to dress up for Halloween well into adulthood,” she says. “It’s fun, it’s playful and it’s an opportunity to hang your adult coat on the rack, even for just a night.”

Pretending to be your favorite superhero or a spooky witch can have healthy benefits for adults, too. As Moten notes, child’s play — playing dress up or make believe — helps kids develop social and cognitive skills.

“Oftentimes, we become adults, and we lose touch with play,” she says, “and we fail to recognize what a lot of research is showing now — that play in adults is just as as important as it is in childhood for social (benefits) and helping to keep the brain sharp.”

Moreover, Dr. Carnigee Truesdale-Howard, a Beaumont Health System clinical psychologist, says dressing up for Halloween can be a stress reliever.

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2015 “Stress in America” survey of 3,068 adults, 42 percent say they’re not doing enough or are not sure they’re doing enough to manage their stress. Meanwhile, 1 in 5 adults say they never engage in an activity to relieve stress.

“We’re always on our computers, our phones, using electronics for work and because of such quick access to the internet, it’s easier nowadays for adults to bring work home,” says Truesdale-Howard. “There’s not a lot of separation from work and home, so that’s going to increase your stress.”

Disguising yourself as a ghost or goblin on Oct. 31 is a healthy way to “break out of the monotony” and explore other sides of yourself, Truesdale-Howard says.

“We carry around this way of being in the world, our persona, and it’s always fun to drop that persona,” says Dr. Gregory Mahr, director of psychosomatic medicine at Henry Ford Health System. “It’s kind of therapeutic in a way, because it reminds us we aren’t really just who we pretend we are all the time when we’re working and with our families.”

According to the National Retail Federation, over 75 percent of adults have already decided what to be this year. But if you’re still on the fence about dressing up, Moten says you should really consider it.

“It’s a great way for families to create family cohesion, but as adults, to really tap back into that adult play, which we are so lacking in,” she says. “And it can really just help improve your mood, make you feel playful and get out of the rut of the seriousness of adult life.”

In the spirit of Halloween, we looked at the most popular costumes this year for adults over 35, based on the NRF’s September survey of 6,791 consumers, and asked Metro Detroit psychologists what these costume choices might say about you:


As Moten notes, this is an “old faithful” costume that might be the most popular because makeup and attire are easy to pull off. But Truesdale-Howard says adults might don a black hat and carry a broom because they want to explore a “bad side of themselves,” especially if they always do “the expected.” “Being a bad witch that casts evil spells, that’s something different from their day to day,” she says. Take the hypothetical example of Susan, who’s always on time. “For Susan to do something that would go against always being on time, always following this regimen, it can be freeing,” Truesdale-Howard says. “Halloween gives her an excuse to do something she wouldn’t normally do.”


Aiming for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” Johnny Depp or Captain Hook look? This is your opportunity to “go against the social expectations of being a good guy or good girl,” Moten says. “A pirate is a free spirit who doesn’t follow the rules and does what he wants,” Mahr adds. “So there’s an inner appeal to that kind of image … because all of us in our lives have to follow rules and answer to family and bosses.” Slap on an eyepatch and bandana, and gather up yer mates to wreak havoc on the seas — er, streets.

Political figure

“This year the whole political climate has been a circus, or Halloween all year ’round it seems,” Moten says. If you’re going as Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, “you’re guaranteed to spark conversations,” she adds. “You’re going to draw attention to yourself. For people who wouldn’t ordinarily have that happen, that can be very exciting.” Mahr also says dressing as a political candidate can represent “our hopes, fears and fantasies about the future and the country. We probably pick the character we want to make fun of or one that really appeals to us.” Screamers Costumes Halloween Superstore co-owner Renee O’Brien says Clinton and Trump costumes are “huge” right now at her Clinton Township shop. For $29.99, you can get a Clinton mask. Trump costs more, at $39.99, because the mask comes with his signature hair. “You gotta to pay a little more for that hair,” O’Brien says.


Besides their fangs and blood diet, vampires are known for their immortality. “There could be an appeal in terms of living forever,” Truesdale-Howard says, adding that this costume choice has a “sexiness” factor. Moten points to the plethora of movies, books and TV shows featuring vampires and their damsels. “Even though there’s that element of badness and evil, there’s still the element of romanticism and intrigue that adds to that adult play, that role playing, which people find so alluring,” she says.


Thinking of shedding your suit and transforming into Superman, Spiderman or Batman? Mahr says pretending to be a superhero who stops trains, flies and defeats villains is one way to make up for possible weaknesses. “When you don’t feel (powerful) in life, it’s nice to slip into this world where you can pretend to be that way. There’s something soothing about it,” he says, referencing preteens who dig their noses into comic books. “When you’re 12 and 13, and feeling inadequate because you’re shy and everybody feels bad about themselves at that age, entering into a fantasy where you identify with the hero is a way of compensating for that.” Pretending to have super-human strength as the Incredible Hulk (as a middle-aged man) could mean you haven’t shaken those feelings. “We always feel inadequate — even when we’re 40 or 50 — so it’s still a way to compensate.”

Moten has another take on the superhero costume craze, noting that many families in her neighborhood dress up as superheros (like The Incredibles) together. “It builds family cohesion,” she says. “It’s just a great way to be a team for the night.”


Personality comes into play in this category. “Very nurturing, gentle personality types tend to choose costumes like cats, dogs and bunnies,” Moten says. “When they do go radically against their nature, it’s usually just an attempt to have their one opportunity out of 365 days to be totally outside of themself.” She gives the example of an otherwise modest woman who chooses a sexy vixen costume. “It’s the one opportunity to go against social conventions and social norms without being condemned, criticized or ridiculed.”

Scary costume/mask

Masks provide anonymity and a pass for adults to go in full pretend mode. “It’s like, ‘I can totally be uninhibited and outside of myself and no one has to know it’s me,’ ” Moten says. This Halloween, wearing a mask, and more specifically, a clown costume, could be an “authoring challenging convention,” Mahr says. In light of recent local and national clown scarings, sporting a bright red nose and fuzzy wig could be a “provocative” act.

But on any other year, clowns have a more emotional significance. “Clowns are supposed to be happy, so it could be a way of experimenting with a different mood than you actually have, instead of being happy or unhappy,” Mahr says.

For those thinking of expressing their sexy side this Halloween, Mahr jokingly warns you might want to avoid this dress-up category: “I think sexy clowns would be hard to pull off — that sounds kind of creepy, actually.”


(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Top costumes


Here’s the National Retail Federation’s 2016 list of the most popular Halloween costumes among adults 35 years and older, based on a survey of 6,791 consumers:

1. Witch

2. Pirate

3. Political (Trump, Clinton, etc.)

4. Vampire

5. Batman character

6. Animal

7. Tie: DC Superhero (Superman, Wonder Woman, excluding Batman) and Star Wars character

8. Tie: Ghost and zombie

9. Scary costume/mask

10. Marvel superhero (Iron Man, Hulk, Spiderman, etc.)


1. Action/superhero

2. Princess

3. Animal (cat, dog, lion, monkey, etc.)

4. Batman

5. Star Wars character

6. Tie: Witch and DC superhero (excluding Batman)

7. Frozen character (Anna, Elsa, Olaf)

8. Marvel superhero (excluding Spiderman)

9. Zombie

10. Spiderman