Costumes and Sexuality in Michael Dougherty’s ‘Trick ‘r Treat’
Trick ‘r Treat has become a staple on many October watch lists. The 2007 anthology film from Michael Dougherty deftly shifts between several interwoven vignettes throughout a small Halloween-obsessed town on the infamous night. While several stories demonstrate the power of costumes in representing personality, perhaps the most intriguing vignette is the story of four young women looking for dates to a pastoral party. Dressed in the sexified attire of Disney princesses and storybook damsels, the girls epitomize the Sexy [fill in the blank] costume trope now common on Halloween.
The Werewolves of Trick ‘r Treat
We first meet Danielle (Lauren Lee Smith), Maria (Rochelle Aytes), Janet (Moneca Delain), and Laurie (Anna Paquin) as they try on too-tight costumes on Halloween night with plans to lure men to a party in the woods. The girls play into the trope by intentionally wearing oversexed costumes intended to simultaneously invoke illusions of innocence and promiscuity, encapsulating the Madonna/Whore dichotomy in a single, highly-constructed image. Their discussion in the costume shop tells us they know exactly what they’re doing. They’re using their sexuality to entice men into letting down their guard and going to a remote party with strangers. What we eventually learn is that their hunting is more devious. They are not looking for romantic or even sexual partners. Underneath their costumes, they are werewolves luring these men to their deaths by the light of the full moon.
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Once they have found their victims, they remove their alluring costumes. Then, while dancing around a bonfire, they rip off their true costumes, the sexy bodies they have been using to disarm their prey. They peel off the smooth skin and voluptuous curves to reveal the sleek hydes, powerful limbs, and sharp teeth hiding within. The girl’s costumes are two-fold: the sultry fairy-tale garments and the skin of the beautiful women they know will help them navigate the world. By dressing as damsels in distress, they use their date’s own assumptions against them, creating the perfect trap.
The Deception Of The Costume
Their plan depends on the straight men they target to lose track of rational judgment in the presence of a beautiful woman; the men are all too eager to oblige. Demure comments and skillfully batted eyes are all it takes to create a false sense of confidence and security. The wolves use this advantage and operate in plain sight under the guise of flirtatious vixens. They broadcast naivete like a beacon. They don these costumes because they know the men they hunt are drawn to the image of a helpless woman looking for a strong protector. In reality, they are the predators, the men their prey.
For decades, women have been dressing as sexy versions of everyday characters or community members. I’ve been a Sexy Librarian for Halloween more times than I can count. Nurses, Maids, Nuns, Girl Scouts, any traditionally female role is easily sexified with a low-cut top and a skin-tight dress. Perhaps some creative makeup is used to solidify the theme. The other side of this coin is a sexed-up version of traditionally male jobs; Referees, Firemen, Farmers, Serial Killers. The implication here is that if women are permitted to fill these roles then they must be fetishized. They must be visually pleasing as well as functional. The pervasiveness of the trend reveals patriarchal expectations for women as well as heteronormative assumptions about our collective desire to please men.
Who Is Allowed To Be Sexy And When
But it’s always the same juxtaposition: an everyday element of society briefly allowed to be sexy. And like the holiday itself, the practice has roots that can be traced back to centuries-old ideology. Women are traditionally defined by our nurturing tendencies, our self-sacrifice, our innocence. These are virtues the dominant culture tells men to prize in their female partners. Women are then raised to embody them in order to land a man who can protect them from the big bad wolves of the world. But we’re also expected to provide children and please men in the marital bed. To put it bluntly, we’re expected to be a lady in the streets, but a freak in the sheets. We must please our men with our sexuality, but only in private and only for consumption by the man who has purchased us with his commitment.
But Halloween is the night in which we let our “sinful” side show; where we can revel in the sensuality we’re trained to repress. On Halloween, we can be what the patriarchy fears most, a sexually liberated woman. One who is not beholden to the men around her. She is not subjugated and seeking approval. No, she’s in command of her sensual desires and willing to aggressively pursue them no matter the cost to her reputation.
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On this night when we’re encouraged to embrace our darker inclinations, many women find freedom in highlighting the sultry and provocative sides of their personalities kept hidden throughout the year. But this temporary liberation implies that the seduction we show on Halloween should be a source of shame, released on one night only along with a multitude of other wicked desires. But there is nothing sinful about displaying our sexuality. The fact that we often feel compelled to relegate it to a single night reveals the puritanical nature of sexual repression prized by the dominant culture.
Illusions of Purity
In Trick ‘r Treat, Laurie uses the illusion of this coveted purity to her benefit. The youngest sister in the little sorority is guided on how to pick up men throughout the night by older sister Danielle. Laurie puts her virginity on display with her innocent Little Red Riding Hood costume, one half of the fairy tale dynamic in which a naive young girl is preyed upon by a deceitful wolf. Her “date” (Dylan Baker) is a cloaked and masked stranger dressed as a vampire.
He is hunting as well, having murdered a young woman earlier in the evening. We’ve been led to believe that Laurie intends to lose her sexual virginity. We fear that her appearance has put her in danger, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Laurie presents herself as the victim society tells the stranger she is, causing him to let his guard down. When he assumes he has the upper hand and tries to attack her, she proves to be the stronger hunter, the man-eating wolf in disguise.
Finding Catharsis in Trick ‘r Treat’s Villains
It’s safe to say that the wolves of Trick ‘r Treat are villains. Though the man Laurie devours is a serial killer, many of the dates they lure to the forest are innocent victims, guilty only of attraction to a woman. But it’s hard not to find catharsis in the moment when the girls let their true selves show. Anyone who has ever ripped off a constricting pushup bra moments after arriving home in favor of a cozy sweatshirt knows the freedom in casting aside the trappings necessary to appear visually perfect. There is relief in relaxing into our true skin. While many of us enjoy wearing sexy costumes, tight corsets, and sky-high heels, the problem arises when we’re expected to wear them to appease the men in our lives. When our value is determined by our ability to fit a strict ideal of feminine perfection.
Though not traditionally beautiful, the wolves of Trick r’ Treat are magnificent in their unrestrained confidence and unabashed strength. Though grotesque, their discarded skins are a symbol of freedom and empowerment. We all hide a ferocious wolf within us, a liberated creature we hide from the world for fear of how we will be received. Some of us have spent our entire lives believing this wolf’s desires are shameful, only letting it out on the one night of the year when all bets are off. But our sexual liberation has nothing to do with our appearance. It lies in our ability to show our beautifully messy selves to the world without fear of judgment. Perhaps this year, we can cast aside the masks of perfection we wear 364 days of the year and embrace our chosen personas long after the bite-sized candy is gone.