Holidays abroad are just never quite the same as at home. You’re far away from the people you typically celebrate with, and so you get together with a series of new people, all of whom have different traditions, different dates, different foods. Sometimes the holidays are adapted and warped: in Korea, Christmas is seen as a couple’s holiday (like… most holidays, actually), and people buy a cake and wear dumb hats. Foreign holidays, like foreign foods, get reprocessed through the local lens to fit the tastes of the people. It’s not wrong or bad, but it feels like staring into a funhouse mirror of the day you held dear at home. Where you would have turkey, and family, and months and months of crass commercialism here, or obscene amounts of chocolate tangentially connected to Jesus or something there, far from home those things are absent. They are distorted. They are not the holiday you remember.
But Halloween, it seems, remains unscathed.
Perhaps because it is so singularly hard to warp. You walk around in weird costumes, beg candy, and pretend to be something else for a night. Many of the Baskin Robins and bakeries in Korea have tried to bandwagon this as well: selling bizarre Halloween cakes, or having sudden Halloween Spooky Sales, but it never seems to get off the ground. It is hard to repurpose, to remarket in frilly and delicate couple holiday shape. Koreans don’t really feel like going to a cafe to have cheesecake while covered in goo and make-up and ill-fitting costumes. Halloween is inflexible, about as malleable as gore-stained concrete. It’s a weird, dumb day, and it cannot be unweirdened, or undumbed. It is pure.
It is ghosts and goblins and monster movie creatures. It is people soaked from head to toe in plasticy viscera and litres of fake blood. Pumpkins and candycorn and maybe apples filled with razorblades. It is more sugar than is necessary or particularly ever good for you. It is drinks and roaming the streets and disappearing into a character. It is spookiness and craftiness. It is night.
It is thus that many foreigners get super excited about it while living in Korea. Untouched, it is a holiday for them, and for Koreans who want to join in the weirdness. People wash themselves in their own creativity, commit to characters, and assemble costumes from the ground up. Innovation is a necessity, as the pre-made Korean costume market amounts to puffy superhero muscle men, cat ears, and a series of drooping, flaccid animal onesies.
It is a night to draw attention, to invite stares and play and be weird. I get stared at every day anyway, and it was more than a little liberating to finally feel like there was a reason for it; to get into a character and act more bizarre, and actively direct focus towards myself. (The very act of trying to draw lots of attention to yourself is already pretty strange in Korea; while some of my Korean friends lavished in the chance for such a taboo indulgence, others basically put on a pair of panda-ears or a wig and were done with it, because it already felt like an ostentatious step too far.)
More than anything, it’s incredibly fun. Even for the people who don’t really understand it, and don’t particularly want to, it’s still just another weird night were the foreigners wander by dressed like dead people.
Here are some things that happened this Halloween:
-It is Friday night. I have been delicately smeared, slathered, and scraped into a zombified husk (care of Deyne, White Trash zombie, pictured above). An old shirt is ruined, slashed to pieces, and soaked in discount fake blood. I walk with a zombie pal to the subway, popping in to my favourite local stores for a quick hello. On the subway, a Korean couple continues to glance over at us, and we begin to shuffle and moan in their direction. They cannot decide whether they want to interact with us or not.
-Our friends will not be in downtown Incheon for another hour, so we shuffle and groan through the underground mall. We crawl up towards couples, and packs of high schoolers. Some people are delighted, and take pictures, and direct us to eat the brains of particular targets. Others actually shriek and run flailing in other directions. We begin entering stores, clutching at the wares, and communicating via grunts and hisses what suits one another. Josh tries on some sample nail-polish across his blackened, soot-stained zombie fingers. It is acid pink. The make-up ladies take photos with us and give us lollipops.
-We sit in the cafeteria, eating kebabs and samosas at a Pakistani restaurant. The owner loves our costumes, and wishes us a happy Diwali. The neighbouring Korean chef looks out at us, and asks us in Korean, “Why the hell are your faces like that?” “Halloween day!” I gleefully respond. He turns to three Koreans seated in his area. “What the fuck is Halloween?”
-We master sneaking up on people. We will point out someone who hasn’t noticed us, andlurk on both sides, and begin breathing heavily. I think we might actually cause a heart attack.
-In Bucheon, we dance at The Park and watch our friends DJ, and experience real live music again (The Rocktigers!). Faith, as always, picks an awesome but tragically unrecognizable costume, doomed to people going, “And you are a…”. No one can tell that she is Janice, from the Electric Mayhem. She wins funniest costume, credited only as “Big Lips”
-Ty wins best costume, dressed as Jesus, against Deyne and I, the zombie pair. Our character commitment was better, but Ty’s Jesus hair was undeniable.
-In the cab home, the taxi driver talks to me for the full 20 minutes, entirely in Korean. Even in the dim light, my face appears deeply bruised, my hair slacken and shellacked in filth. I smell of beer and sweat and smoke. I am covered in what appears to be blood: from my forehead and ears and mouth. At length, he glances back at me, and remarks, “Your shirt is a little red.”
-On Saturday, we dressed as three bottles of highly recognizable Korean alcoholic beverages: soju, makgeolli, and Cass (a Korean beer brand). The costumes turned out stupendously. As we walked through the subway station, we were very nearly high-fived by every Korean who passed us by.
-We are the coolest people in all of Hongdae (but for two other roaming giant soju bottles—however, they are lone rangers, while we form the Korean Holy Trinity). As we walk through the streets, Koreans and foreigners alike clamour and compliment us, and more than once give us free booze. People chase down the street in order to meet us. We have designed a synchronized dance to emphasize our ludicrous bottle-neck hats.
-In the Hongdae playground, we are swarmed. Nearly 100 different groups of people take pictures with us over the span of three hours, not counting the people who simply take pictures from afar. We are interviewed for television. We can barely move, so many people want to talk to or hang around us. It is impossible to pee in our costumes, and we become skilled at removing them from one another when need arises. It is an amazing Halloween.