Halloween in Isla Vista & the U.S. Carnivalesque

When people ask me what my PhD is in, I often get a blank stare when I reply, “Dramatic Art.” But when I tell them I wrote my dissertation on the U.S. Carnivalesque, more specifically the enormous, booze-fueled outdoor mega-party the denizens of Isla Vista (the infamous student slum where the majority of UCSB’s undergraduate population resides) throw for themselves every Halloween, suddenly they’re interested. And for good reason: it’s a fascinating event, and a seriously under-researched cultural phenomenon.

The majority of my academic writing would be out of place here, but I wanted to at least include an homage to that era by sharing the colorful essay that would eventually become the basis for my dissertation, Playing on the Edge: Performance, Youth Culture, and the U.S. Carnivalesque. Enjoy!

Finding Nemo on Del Playa Drive

October 31, 2003, approximately 11 p.m.: Isla Vista’s Del Playa Drive is swarming with costumed revelers. A young Latina in a skimpy Snow White costume, cheered on by her friends, is singing a sexually explicit song to a group of young men dressed as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Nearby, a doctor is attempting to convince his nurse that it’s “okay” for her to remove her shirt because he is a licensed “boobyologist,” while she counters that he has consumed too much alcohol to be practicing medicine at the moment. Up on a balcony, a scantily-clad, tiara-topped Princess is mooning the crowd below, where a Caucasian man dressed as Speedy Gonzales in an exaggerated poncho and oversized sombrero, is chanting “Turn around! Turn around!” and encouraging others to join him. On the sidewalk nearby, a young man in a flannel shirt is arguing with the police officer who is handcuffing him, insisting that he had only joined the fight to save his brother, who was “seriously getting his ass kicked”; an unidentified passerby calls the officer a “pig” and tells him to, “leave the poor guy alone.” An apparently intoxicated young woman in a Girl-scout uniform of exceedingly short length is arguing belligerently with an un-costumed friend, who is attempting to convince said Girl-scout that she has had enough tequila for one evening.

Suddenly, from the midst of this sea of chaotic revelry, a piercing cry arises. “NEMO!” a male voice calls out, “It’s Nemo!” The crowd shifts as an Asian sailor holding a video camera wades over toward where a young man dressed as “Nemo,” is facing the opposite direction. “I have to find Nemo,” he explains to those he must push out of the way, some of whom turn to follow him, joining the quest. Having arrived, he calls out once more, “Nemo!” at which point the orange-and-black fish head turns to face the searching ‘sailor’ and his camera, revealing Filipino features, a loose-fitting orange tank-top, and an open container of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. “Oh my god,” declares the newfound Nemo, “you fuckin’ found me, Dude!” The two strangers hug to the tune of a communal “awwwww”: a conscious, collective parody of so many sentimentalized Hollywood-ending reunions. Having played out their scene, the two unceremoniously part, carried off in opposite directions by the chaotic currents of the chuckling crowd.

Unlike at other annual festivals of comparable size, there are no planned events at Halloween in Isla Vista: no parades, no contests, no organized games to play or ceremonies to attend. The traditional activities are few – dressing up in a provocative costume, going door to door in search of alcohol and/or sexual adventure (the Isla Vistan perversion of “trick-or-treating”) – and the rules of engagement are largely tacit and extraordinarily flexible. That is not to say, however, that there are no noteworthy events taking place here on Del Playa; on the contrary, theatrical happenings are evident in every direction. No designated “performers” offer premeditated entertainment; instead, every participant is at once entertainer and spectator, exhibitionist and voyeur, constantly engaging in subversive sketches of varying lengths with fellow participants (and in this I include police officers, uniformed and otherwise). Taken individually, these overlapping performances may not appear to be communicating any decipherable messages, either for the other participants, or for those non-participants who witness them (in person, or through the media). However, closer examination reveals common themes which begin to form a coherent (if contradictory) narrative: resistance to authority through the carnivalesque arts of rule-breaking and taboo-twisting; the flagrant foregrounding of sexuality; the parodic perversion of childhood games and fantasies; an exaggerated indulgence in alcohol and other substances forbidden to Americans in childhood; and a pervasive preoccupation with the creation and documentation of a sufficiently outrageous Halloween experience to carry into the increasingly isolated space of American adulthood. What once appeared to be an ordinary – if particularly popular – college party is thus revealed as a carnivalized ritual enactment of the transition between adolescence and adulthood in the United States. At once a celebration of the fleeting freedom allowable before the onset of post-college productivity, a funeral for the abandoned illusions of childhood, and a site of collective experimentation in identity formation, Halloween in Isla Vista is much more than a gathering of costumed college students: it is an emblematic expression of what are commonly regarded to be “the best years” of an American’s life.

Yet this complex, multilayered college carnival is largely met with condescension – if not outright condemnation – from non-participants, who tend to dismiss the event as being little more than an annual excuse for binge drinking and destructive behavior. This is symptomatic of a general tendency in both American media and scholarship to portray the subcultures created by young adults as evidence of adolescent endangerment and deviance, rather than as unique forms of communication and identity exploration. Without minimizing the very real problems associated with Halloween in Isla Vista, I approach this event, and the college culture of which it is a product and a reflection, as serious subjects of inquiry. Research on student culture has thus far primarily regarded manifestations such as the Del Playa street party (when it has regarded them at all) as problems to be solved, or as radical political gestures to be glorified. I argue that they should instead be considered carnivalesque cultural performances from which a great deal can be learned about the needs, desires, and fears of this vital, yet frequently marginalized sector of American society.

The notion of the carnivalesque was most famously theorized by Russian writer Mikhail Bakhtin as a celebration providing “temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order” that “marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions.” Two of Bakhtin’s concepts will be particularly useful in understanding Halloween in Isla Vista: “gay relativity,” or the temporary suspension of social hierarchy, and “grotesque realism,” or an exaggerated emphasis on the materiality of the physical body. By exploring one aspect of the legendary street party enacted every year in Isla Vista, namely the costumes, I hope to provide a clearer understanding of how this event functions, within its particular cultural and geographical context, as a carnivalesque festival. My aim is to interpret a portion of the cultural communication being transmitted at this much-misunderstood and oft-maligned event, so as to clarify the need it appears to fulfill for participants.

Sleazy Beauty and Pimp Charming: The Grotesque Realism of the College Crowd

Nemo isn’t the only animated character to be found on Del Playa drive; the past three years’ celebrations were awash in cartoon characters, fictional heroes and heroines from television and movies, and more general incarnations of childhood games and fantasies. In fact, the roll call in Isla Vista differs very little from the cast of characters one might find at a grade-school Halloween party or trick-or-treating in a residential neighborhood: girls are mainly dressed as angels, fairies, princesses, animals, and cartoon heroines, while the most popular costumes for boys are cowboys, firemen, sport heroes, gangsters, cartoon characters, Vikings, and sailors or pirates.

These costumes, however, are no longer direct replications, but exaggerated and degraded parodies that foreground the hidden subversive transcript of this kind of childhood lore. At Halloween in Isla Vista, Nemo is no longer a lost and innocent fish, but an irreverent reveler who is apparently more interested in finding his way to the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniels than in finding his way back home. Likewise, the childhood game of “playing doctor” returns to the young adult repertoire for this one evening, its covert transcript of sexual exploration exposed and amplified; a popular costume at the 1999 and 2000 celebrations, for example, was that of a doctor in scrubs, sporting an exaggerated, and apparently prosthetic, erection. Similar hidden transcripts regarding proper (read: hetero-) sexual conduct, mined from a wide range of stories and images aimed at American children, are also caricatured by the Halloween revelers. Costumes that appear at first glance to be nostalgic throwbacks often prove to be vulgarized versions of once-beloved figures, as if these heroes must be revealed as chimeras and shams, their dark underside exposed in grotesque parody, before they can be definitively laid to rest.

In decades past, the most popular costumes were those involving religious parody, such as male nuns reading copies of Penthouse magazine, partly-undressed monks, and religious zealots proclaiming, “the end is near – party while you can!” At certain politically-charged moments of history, political parodies have come to the fore, though these moments are infrequent and limited in scope. So although sacrilege and sexuality have always been accentuated, the primary targets of the sacrilege do not appear to shift from religious (and occasionally political) figures to childhood idols until the early 1990s, when figures such as a marijuana-smoking Cat in The Hat and a licentious Oscar the Grouch begin to take over where the Penthouse-perusing nuns of yesteryear left off. This trend has steadily continued throughout the last decade: the 2003 celebration yielded few religious or political parodies, the vast majority of costumes instead parodying childhood games, idols and fantasies.

Weather notwithstanding, the copious amount of bare flesh displayed on Halloween also appears to be of central importance, particularly for female revelers. After a stroll down Del Playa on October 31, 2003, professor Harry Nelson said he was “struck by just how pervasive skimpy costumes were for women.” Said Nelson: “80 or 90% of the women wore them. They tended to band together in knots of 2 to 10 for solidarity (sometimes in coordinated outfits), but the outfits were revealing to an embarrassing degree.” Even participants themselves are quick to note the pervasive tendency to sexualize otherwise innocent costume choices. Freshman Jenn Lotz shared with me a running joke between herself and a friend about this phenomenon: “We’d be like, oh, what are you dressing up as tonight? And some girl would be like, ‘I’m gonna be a pirate,’ and then me and my friend would go, ‘a slutty pirate.’ And then someone would be like, ‘I’m gonna be a bumble bee,’ ‘a slutty bumblebee.’ […] Because, it was true, every single girl like… skankified their little outfit.” Lotz, who was born and raised in New Orleans, said she was surprised to find that sexiness appears to be even more of a costuming priority at Halloween in Isla Vista than at Mardi Gras.

There is, however, more to this sexualization – or “skankification” to use Lotz’s term – than meets the eye. The women are not, by and large, simply masquerading as something or someone innately sexy. Instead, the overwhelming trend is to take something inherently innocent, and to sexualize it. The Britney Spears look-alikes, and even the showgirls and belly dancers, are now vastly outnumbered by the hordes of once-beloved characters in outrageously inappropriate attire. It is not enough to dress as, say, Cinderella – that would be “childish” and therefore inappropriate to the occasion. Instead, one must play at playing Cinderella, hacking off her ball-gown to miniskirt length and plunging her neckline to blush-worthy depths, so as to invoke Cinderella’s fetish value without actually inhabiting her (now outmoded) persona.

The American media’s rather disturbing tendency to link girlhood innocence with sexual desirability is writ large in Isla Vista: angels become Victoria’s Secret angels, bunnies become Playboy Bunnies, and Disney princesses are unveiled as surreptitious sex symbols. Also popular are sexualized versions of the catholic school girl, the Girl-scout, and the pig-tailed toddler in leg-revealing baby-doll dress. On one level, these young women are indeed playing into the paradoxical, media-endorsed fantasy of the forever-young virgin-whore. On another level, however, by exaggerating and often mocking the paradox, they are also challenging the image and emphasizing their (new-found) sexual agency. The revealing costumes and raunchy behavior of the revelers constantly undercut the coveted virginal innocence of their personae, and this provocative incongruity serves to isolate and to comment upon the media’s fetishization of girlhood.

As an example, let us examine more closely the Snow White described in the introduction. Though her costume was recognizably that of Disney’s Snow White, the “skirt” was in point of fact little more than a large ruffle: the entire length of this Latina coed’s burnished-copper legs stood in defiant contrast to the covertly racist appellation of Disney’s original milky-white heroine. Furthering the parody were the controversial, sexually charged lyrics she sang to her audience of cartoon combatants: “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard […] I could teach you, but I’d have to charge…” Again, the “milkshake” image provides an ironic reference to Snow White’s glorified pallor, and the confident claim to sexual prowess subverts the character’s requisite virginal naïveté. Thus the impromptu performer is able to pervert this symbol of racial and sexual “purity” into an emblem of subversive power and sexual liberation.

For the men in attendance, machismo is both emphasized and mocked; through humorous exaggeration, the male reveler is able to come to terms with the impossibility of ever achieving his childhood fantasy of manliness. Instead, he contents himself to play at being a cowboy, a pirate, or a superhero, while at the same time openly mocking such a fantasy as unrealistic or even inappropriate. Furthermore, mingling among these icons of American masculinity is a noteworthy addition to the childhood repertoire: the pimp. A significant perversion of the male role-model, the pimp figure foregrounds the hidden heteronormative transcript of so many socializing narratives: that a successful man is one who is able to have unlimited sexual access to, and to maintain control over the sexual activities of, multiple women. One 2001 reveler, calling himself “Pimp Charming,” illustrated this process by combining elements of the classical Disney prince (the white suit, complete with gold buttons and a plastic sword), with the Hollywood conception of a 1970s pimp (fuzzy, wide-brimmed hat and long, frilly coat, copious gold jewelry and platform shoes). “Has anybody seen Sleazy – I mean, Sleeping Beauty?” he asked passersby, and added – accompanied by a none-too-subtle grinding of the pelvis, “I’ve got something here that’ll wake her right up!” Although the Disney corporation would surely never be so blatant as to feature such a figure in one of its animated films, the reveler in question simply exaggerated the sexual subtext already present in tales like Sleeping Beauty, and many of the other stories chosen as suitable material for children’s media.

The costumes at Halloween in Isla Vista serve as an outstanding example of what Bakhtin referred to as “grotesque realism,” or “the essential principle of grotesque degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their dissoluble unity.” One would be hard-pressed to find a more emblematic representation of Bakhtin’s concept than the Halloween revelers’ manipulation of the idyllic images offered them in childhood. Through the blatant foregrounding of the bodily, sexual, and scatological aspects of previously sanitized icons, the unspoken is not only made manifest, it is magnified to a grotesque extreme.

Bakhtin goes on to explain the function of grotesque realism as being one of necessary destruction that makes way for new growth. He writes: “Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one. To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into the void of nonexistence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth take place.” Thus the revelers’ willful destruction of childhood fantasies through the device of degradation is equally an act of regeneration. As these old fantasies are being laid to rest, a space is opened in which new fantasies can be created and enacted; myriad possibilities afforded by the onset of independence, and by the ethereal freedom exceptionally allowed to American college students, are envisioned and rehearsed within the ceremonial space of the Isla Vista Halloween carnival.

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