10/20/2014 07:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Halloween Costumes Go Traumatically Wrong


I didn't traumatize my 3-year-old daughter. A cheap wig did.

It was one of those classic parenthood failures where I knew I should have wrapped her up in my warm mom-tastic embrace and sympathetically combed her curls with my fingers. But instead, I laughed. Worse. I laughed and pointed. My finger was an evil reflex that I could not control. Then I called my husband into the room. I saw his cheeks attempt to wrestle his smirk into submission, but instead he spun around and left the scene before my daughter could see his reaction. She could hear his laughter in the other room, though. Pillows don't muffle all evidence, you know.

Sweet, darling, innocent Bettie Anne. She was a fairy princess for Halloween last year, and this year she decided to be something much different: a fairy Ariel princess. No, not a Faerial princess, Mom. Stop trying to be clever; you're annoyatating me. Like many children, she had a vision of exactly how this was going to play out.

She had already found the gown at Goodwill. No, not a dress, Mom; it's a gown. For the ball. (Moms don't know anything, do they?) It looked like a 16-layer cake of pink ruffles and lace. She had the wings. Pink, sheer, precipitously fragile, overpriced (for technically just being pantyhose over wire). Now all she needed was the third and final piece: the coiffed red tendrils of Ariel the Little Mermaid.

Here's where things went downhill fast.

My dad paid us a visit one day, and he brought Bettie a huge bag of toys -- books, a princess castle, dolls, oh my -- that he had found in the hall closet. Surely the bag was for his only granddaughter, and needless to say, she went totally nuts over the surprise Christmas in October. This was quickly followed by my mom going nuts, upon learning my dad had given Bettie the bag of toys she'd been collecting for a family who lost their home in a flood.

Life Lesson Learned Hard No. 1. Someday, I dare you to give this scenario a try: "Hey, 3-year-old only child who loves books, princess castles and dolls. You know all those toys your grandpa just gave to you? Yeah, give those all back. And don't cry."

I dare you. It's terrifying. I would have rather explained to her in detail how she was conceived.

Believe it or not, this is not the traumatizing part of the story.

Luckily, Bettie is fairly reasonable, or at least distractible. If she could part with those toys, Dad promised to take her to the store at that exact moment (preying on youthful impulsivity) to buy that beautiful wig of heavenly red mermaid curls.

I should have gone. How was he supposed to know about the order of wig hierarchy? He took her to a store that will remain nameless, but let's just say you can also purchase ground beef, wallpaper, tires and dog food there.

Bettie -- sweet, darling, innocent Bettie -- raced inside the house to show me her new wig. The picture on the front promised the perfect climax to her Halloween costume. Shiny red curls on a smiling model. Bettie opened the bag and pulled out the wig. She held it up for a moment, in stunned confusion, and optimistically lowered it onto her head. She cautiously walked to the mirror and her rosebud lips melted. She burst into tears.

This isn't an Ariel wig! This is a Mean Girl wig!

The orange hair was matted in fat, frizzy tangles. It kinked like a cowlick-filled home perm. It looked a lot like my hair when I sleep on it wet, actually. Except it smelled like plastic bag and it cost $25, nonrefundable.

Deep down, I wanted to cry with Bettie, at least for the waste of money, but laughter possessed me. At the truth of it all, how many times have you tried on a pre-made, assembly-line, costume-in-a-bag at a cheap Halloween pop-up shop (or seasonal aisle) and thought, Hmm, this totally looks like the beautiful image on the front of the bag?

Zero times. No one has.

The rich, silky blue cape around Cleopatra in the picture turns out to be a flimsy, wrinkled square of tissue paper. No buttons; just two small squares of Velcro. What looks like a corset is actually screen-printed on a baggy polyester onesie. The dramatic pointed collar for your vampire costume: a floppy triangle of foam that you Velcro around your neck, leaving a several-inch gap of neck flesh at the top of the dress. The sexier the picture on the front of the bag, the less flattering the untailored perpetrator inside.

Which brought us to Life Lesson Learned Hard No. 2: Just as it's yucky to eat pre-packaged, mass-processed food, it's also yucky to wear pre-packaged, mass-processed costumes. Dad.

I would fix this. Driven by the guilt of my inappropriate laughter at the collapse of my precious child's dreams, I went straight to the source of costume glory in Boulder: Theatrical Costumes Etc. And there I found the highest-quality, most-gosh-darn Disney-perfect red wig, and I bought it for my daughter. It cost only $10 more.

This time, when Bettie put it on her head, I could see her vision blossoming to life. Bettie Ariel glowed and began dancing on the bathroom counter top. Moved by the magic of Halloween and her love of make-believe, I burst out in song.

Look at this stuff, isn't it neat ...

Bettie stopped. That same look of stunned confusion and horror crossed her face again. This time, she pointed her finger at me.

Never sing again, Mom. That was scary.

The article originally appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera.