Why do people of all ages enjoy dressing up for Halloween? Maybe because it’s an opportunity for creative self-expression, and a chance to be whoever you want to be for one night. And that can be especially meaningful for teens, who are in the crucial process of identity formation.
Building autonomy and independence is a big part of the work of being an adolescent. And that often means experimenting with different styles and ways of expressing yourself. For teens, that can take the form of dying their hair purple, making a fashion statement, or pursuing a creative passion. Thus, a teen Halloween costume can be a way for adolescents to demonstrate their creativity and imagination, as well as what they care about.
The Psychology of Identity Formation
Prior to the 20th century, adolescents and adults had clearly defined roles within their community. Kids understood early on what work they would do and how they would function within a family unit, and there was very little room to deviate from these expectations. However, over the past 100 years, this has changed entirely in the Western world. Now the possibilities are limitless.
That’s a good thing—but it means that adolescents have a harder job to do. According to identity formation psychology, a field originated by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, exploring possible roles and values is vital to identity development.
For teenagers, Halloween can serve this purpose. They can dress like people they admire, or wear a costume that reveals something important about them. Teens who dress as Wonder Woman might be tapping into their strength and power. Wearing a vampire or witch costume might be a way to explore the darker side of their personality.
Expressing different aspects of themselves through a Halloween costume can give teens deeper insight into who they are and how they want to be in the world. And the reactions they get from others give them information—whether positive or negative—about how the world sees them.
Sexuality and Teen Halloween Costumes
Using Halloween costumes to explore identity formation sometimes includes exploring sexuality. Dressing up can help teens feel less inhibited about expressing their sexuality. Because they’re acting out another side of their personality, they don’t feel as constrained as they might in everyday life. This can be empowering and body-positive.
However, research shows that wearing sexy costumes increases the possibility for young women to be sexually objectified—in other words, valued solely for their sexual appeal. One study found that women dressed in revealing Halloween costumes were seen as more sexualized and less considerate, faithful, moral, sincere, and self-respecting than women wearing non-revealing costumes.
Halloween and Teen Risky Behavior
Moreover, studies show that sexual objectification is associated with body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, low self-esteem, and depression.
On college campuses, Halloween has become an occasion for binge drinking and other risky behaviors. And wearing a costume can increase the likelihood that an adolescent will drink or use drugs. One study compared drinking and drug use by college students who wore costumes on Halloween with those who did not. Researchers found a significant link between dressing in costume and drinking alcohol. Furthermore, those who went out in costume with a group were also more likely to use marijuana and other drugs.
In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported the following statistics on Halloween driving and drinking in 2016:
- 45 percent of motor vehicle deaths involved a driver or motorcyclist with a blood alcohol concentration over the legal limit
- 23 percent of pedestrian fatalities included a driver who had been drinking
- 50 percent of drunk drivers involved in a traffic fatality during the Halloween week were men ages 21–34.
In summary, Halloween offers a fun way for teens to express themselves and further the process of identity formation. However, risky behavior also increases at this time. Parents and college administrations can help prevent dangers by establishing guidelines to help keep teens safe.
Oxford Research Encyclopedias: Identity Development in Adolescence and Adulthood, Jane Kroger; 2017 Feb.
Fashion and Textiles. 2016 Dec; 3:21.
Adolescence. 1993 Spring;28(109):189–98.