Remember that LinkedIn/Facebook/Instagram/Tinder meme? How about Bernie Sanders “once again asking”? Or all those cakes masquerading as non-cake things? The calendar grids with celebrities’ faces that get progressively more frazzled as the year goes on? The “mi pan” dancing llama? You’re forgiven for forgetting any of these once-popular memes — there has, after all, been kind of a lot going on this year — but brace yourself, because there’s a good chance you’ll relive them all again this weekend in the form of costumes worn by friends, acquaintances, and random people you follow on social media. Maybe you even plan to dress up as a meme yourself. Halloween, the one day of the year that spirits of the dead can return to earth (you know, probably), has in recent years seen the resurrection of a different kind of spirit: the ghosts of memes past.
Mining the annals of pop culture with the goal of creating a costume that makes people laugh with its wit and timeliness isn’t exactly a new phenomenon — once upon a time, it looked like a Bill Clinton mask or a Britney Spears-inspired schoolgirl outfit. But these days, as an ever-growing number of us can be classified as Extremely Online, it’s likely to be an ode to something that is (or was) super popular on a corner of the internet. But there’s more to the fact that Halloween has become a greatest hits album for this kind of digital ephemera than meets the eye. This year, it’s a potent form of self-expression during a time when human interaction is severely limited, as well as a means of preserving and building on the legacy of certain cultural touchstones.
“Why we share certain memes is an expression of ourselves — of who we are, and how we feel at a certain moment,” says Ricky Sans, Strategic Partner Manager for Memes at Instagram. “[When you dress up as a meme] you're essentially becoming a real life embodiment of the meme you would share with your friends or family on Instagram. It gives you an opportunity to further the memes path of longevity, also, so I think it’s ultimately another medium to interact with memes.”
Everything we wear says something about us, and this goes double for costumes, which take effort to create and will probably be seen by a lot of people, even if this year that means just on social media. But because memes are already a kind of language, making the choice to dress up as Kermit the Frog sipping tea speaks louder than, say, making the choice to dress up as a witch for the sixth year in a row. “I think it shows you’re part of a sort of ‘in crowd.’ Like a big inside joke. If a stranger gets my meme costume, I can assume we’ll probably at least have some common interests,” says Shelby, 28, who lives in Salt Lake City and dressed as the “change my mind” guy in 2018.
Assuming it’s well-articulated enough, a meme costume also provides protection from one of the most bone-chilling frights of Halloween: dressing up only to have no one understand what the hell you’re supposed to be. “Nothing’s worse than a Halloween costume you have to explain over and over at a party,” explains Tiffany, 29, who lives in Los Angeles and dressed as the “this is fine” dog last year. “Memes are so relatable, they’re instantly funny. A little connection between you and some stranger on the street, a little bit casual, a little bit ‘how do you do fellow kids.’ They scream, ‘I’m not trying too hard with a made up theme, I just came to have a good time.’”
The benefits of a meme costume’s timeliness aren’t just limited to the year you wear it. Unlike the aforementioned witch costume — which is actually, according to Google, the most-searched costume for this year — if you dress up as a woman yelling at a salad-eating cat, when you see a photo of itt in five years, it will tell you something about who you were in that moment. Granted, I think many of us wouldn’t like to be reminded of who we are in this moment, 10 months into what most agree is the worst year of our collective lives, but at least if it’s expressed through a Tiger King costume, maybe one day we can laugh about it?
“Looking back on this year and before, there are so, so many things that it’s going to be tough to explain to younger generations who didn’t experience the same [things],” says Tiffany. “Maybe one day for a retro-rewind party we can resurrect Bernie, Tea Kermit, and all those other lovely images that pulled an internet full of different folks together. Love to see it.”
There’s an interesting cycle that occurs when we take something that originated online and move it into our physical world via a costume, only to feed it back online in the form of Instagram posts and TikTok videos, many of which could end up, as Tiffany’s “this is fine” costume did, in a digital best dressed list searchable for years to come. This blurring of the IRL and the URL is increasingly commonplace, and has arguably resulted in a popular culture that’s much stranger and more surreal than it otherwise might be, as internet humor tends to be mostly driven by young people with a flare for the bizarre. “One of the things that excites me about meme culture is the pairing of technology and communication that’s driving culture forward,” explains Sans. “The way that things have evolved is reflective of how we as humans interact and share experiences with each other. We are now really becoming one with the internet.”
If “becoming one with the internet” sounds spooky to you, that’s probably because it hits just a little too close to home. After all, those of us lucky enough to have jobs we can perform remotely have spent the better part of the year interacting with the world through our laptop and phone screens. We’re more dependent on technology than ever, not just to log on to work or order food through an app, but to talk to connect with one another and express ourselves. And often, that happens through the creation and dissemination of memes.
So while many Halloween festivities are canceled this year, there’s a good chance that at the ones that still exist, be they online or with a small group of pod-members, there will be a high concentration of meme costumes. Sans predicts among the most popular this year will be Tiger King, which he even says could “become memeable” again if enough people riff on it, as well as the game Among Us, “how it started vs. how it’s going,” and cakes that look like other things. “You could have an arm that’s cake and just cut into it,” he offers. Hey, after the year we’ve had, few costumes feel too scary, especially those that ultimately involve cake.