The irresistible allure of otherness

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, October 26, 2013

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Years ago, when we lived on a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood in town, a small contingent of high school kids came to our door on a Halloween evening.

One of them was a bride and groom. Half of, uh, her was a beautifullly coiffed and made-up bride in a white dress. A veil adorned her blonde hair and a white glove covered her hand.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

The other half was a handsome groom in a black tuxedo. I think he even had half a mustache, and his black hair was stylishly slicked down.

He/she looked like the couple from on top of the wedding cake, only mashed together into one person. My guess was the high school drama class had been working for hours to get this guy/girl ready. It must have cost some bucks, too, since it required the destruction of both a perfectly good tuxedo and a wedding dress.

I still have no idea which gender the person really was. It was a little freaky.

There’s something inside us that enjoys being other than what we are.

It’s like hiding in plain sight, able to see everyone and knowing they can’t see you. You’re in the tree above their heads as they walk along. You’re behind the one-way mirror as they fix their hair and gossip. You’re the invisible man (or woman) (or both).

I believe that’s part of the continuing fascination with Halloween. People enjoy being something else, whether you’re talking accountants on Harleys, city slickers at a rodeo or fake-tattooed metalheads at a concert.

I’m pretty sure a driving force behind zombie movies and TV shows is that all those extras simply enjoy getting made up to look like zombies. Yes, it’s poorly written and no, no one’s watching anymore – but it’s fun!

In fact, it’s more than fun.

Any educator will tell you that make-believe is a crucial part of human development. All cultures do it – some much more dramatically and effectively than ours.

Kids have a deep, visceral need to pretend – whether it’s dressing up for Halloween or career day, or just taking on different roles as part of their play. They’re pirates, astronauts, cowboys and ballet dancers, all within the space of an afternoon.

It’s how they visualize themselves in the roles they will play as grown-ups. It’s play, but it’s a vital learning experience as well.

Sometimes they learn more than they expected to learn.

In the second grade, my buddy Joe Bob threw a “hobo party” for his birthday, and everyone was invited to dress like a migrant who rode into town in an empty train car.

That would be terribly politically incorrect now, but I really got into it. My mom and I dug clothes out of the rag bin, found old shoes and a hat my dad had discarded. I carried my belongings in a bandanna, hanging from a stick over my shoulder, and we even found a sad-looking mask for my face.

It was cool. I wasn’t me anymore.

I barely remember the party (all that get-up got in the way of cake-eating, as I recall) but I starkly remember walking around the neighborhood afterward.

I spotted a friend’s mom hanging laundry on the line and decided to have some fun. I put the mask in place and as I approached her, I held out my hand asking for something to eat.

Her face told me it worked. “What a horrible child!” she gasped and was about to run inside when I ripped off the mask and told her it was me.

She was angry – and probably a little ashamed of her reaction.

I will never forget that look. It took years for me to realize that’s a look some people get every day. It gave me a strong shot of much-needed empathy, early in life.

Just one of the valuable lessons of make-believe.

That, of course, and candy.

Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Messenger.

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