One time, when I was 10, I waited in line for hours to meet Darth Vader at the Southcentre Mall in Calgary, Alberta. When it was my turn, I froze up. He smelled human, like a man sweating in a leather costume in the middle of summer. He was short, and I could see his neck coming out of the base of his helmet. In that moment, I realized that a person was underneath the costume, and it felt fake and frightening. In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to talk to him, and he ended up handing the signed photo to my Mom.
After that day, costumed characters started to scare me more and more. They didn’t feel real or genuine to me, and it bothered me that I couldn’t see the person inside. When I would see Ronald McDonald, I felt like he was hiding something, almost like stranger danger levels of discomfort. At games, I would be distracted by the mascots. I would picture some gross dude inside, high-fiving kids and hugging people, and it just felt creepy. I was in college the first time I realized the extent of my discomfort. I was on the train to art school when Batman got on. I remember thinking for a split second, “Is that really him?” Nobody was with him, he just walked onto the train, and stood there silently, holding onto the bar and staring out the window. For my entire ride, it was just the two of us, me sitting and him standing, not making eye contact or saying a word. He seemed completely unaware of the strangeness of the situation — like he believed that he was truly Batman in some unhinged way.
When my daughter was three, we went to Disneyland for the first time. Only when I saw the magic of the characters through her eyes, did I begin to get over my fear. She only saw Mickey Mouse and Chip N Dale; she didn’t see them as the people inside the costumes. When we let her pick out a souvenir, she chose a Winnie the Pooh Bumblebee costume. Then she turned to me and said, “You can get that one, Dada!” She was pointing at an adult-sized Winnie the Pooh costume. So I did, and I carted it home from Disneyland in my suitcase because it was real in my daughter’s eyes.
I wear it because it's funny, I know I look ridiculous, and it makes people laugh. My daughter goes off to college this year and I’ll probably visit her wearing it one day — funny dad moves.
When we are young, we can separate the human from the character, and just believe what we see. It only gets weird when you realize there’s a human inside. When I got freaked out by seeing Darth Vader’s neck, I missed the part that realized it was about self expression. After all, isn’t that what we do to a lesser degree when we get dressed every day? Seeing it through my kids’ eyes helped me see that when people dress up, they are just finding a way to have their outsides match their insides. Instead of fake Batman feeling like a lie, I now see it as someone having the confidence and abandon to lean into his inner superhero. Nowadays, when my son and I go to Emerald City Comic Con, instead of doing the classic dad thing where I take pictures of my kid, I have him take pictures of me posing with people dressed like characters we love. #xerxesandthings
There’s something about wearing a costume that makes someone more approachable, where I can go up to complete strangers and ask to have my photo taken with them. When I’m dressed as Pooh, people always come up and talk to me. Connections are made when you’re genuine, and real, and you’re fully allowing yourself to just be in your truest form. It bonds people, and it builds friendships and communities. I believe Cosplay has taken off with the current generation because they are breaking ground in authentic self-identification. I’m proud of them because they are learning to be more secure in externally expressing themselves in ways that generations past haven’t. They are actively practicing acceptance of themselves and the people around them.
I suppose it all boils down to self expression, really. Just be who you are and love what you love.