Growing up in Australia, I never really celebrated Halloween. I have always been aware of it – our department stores in October stock costumes and haunted decor of varying quality – but it has never caught on to the extent that children can go trick or treating and expect the residents of the houses they visit to be prepared to dispense confectionary. This may be starting to change.
Performing ethnographic research in Second Life means engaging fully in the commemorative and celebratory culture of the virtual world. In October, that means engaging with Halloween. Second Life is heavily tied to the culture of the United States. In an earlier post I described the culture of memorialisation of 9/11 in-world. The links between Second Life and the United States go deeper than that. Second Life’s time is equivalent to pacific standard / pacific daylight savings time – the time in Linden Labs’ real-world location. Its calendar, too, is tied to that of the United States. While Halloween did not originate in America, in its current form it has always seemed to me a quintessentially American holiday so I was not surprised to see Second Life populated with ghosts, vampires, and other forms of fantastic creatures as soon as October began.
One of the most interesting aspects of Halloween as it is celebrated in Second Life is the costuming. Residents are, in a sense, always in a costume of some kind. Many residents spend all their time in-world roleplaying as vampires, or as anthropomorphic animals, or fantasy creatures. There are historical role plays and science fiction role plays and sims welcoming any kind of personification. In this context, the Halloween costume obtains a different meaning to that it may hold in the ‘real world’. It is only a costume if it is an entirely different embodiment to one’s usual self – this is also true in the offline world, but becomes problematised when one’s usual self could be anything from a youthful, sexualised human to a blue cloud. I found that when choosing a Halloween costume I made an effort to ensure that it was far enough out of the ordinary to be unambiguously a costume. I could not dress as a vampire and trust that those with whom I interacted would know that this was not my normal embodiment. Instead, I donned black wings, tentacle hair, and a dark mask.
In Second Life, even this may not be mistaken for my ‘true self’.