Halloween Is Filthy With Ghosts. But Where Are All the Goblins?

What to eat, drink, and think.
Oct. 29 2013 11:55 PM

A Ghoulish Consistency

Halloween is filthy with ghosts. But where are all the goblins?

Business Goblin: What Gives?
Why is no one dressing up as me?

Photo courtesy Achim Raschka/Wikimedia Commons. Silhouette by Slate.

“Halloween is coming up,” the on-your-side, yet somehow relatably down-to-earth action news anchor intones. “So motorists, be sure to be on the lookout for all those little ghosts and goblins …”

Mike Pesca Mike Pesca

Mike Pesca is the host of the Slate daily podcast The Gist. He also contributes reports and commentary to NPR.

Putting aside the wisdom of warning adults to look out for ghosts—definitionally invisible apparitions—there is a glaring problem with the traditional pairing of ghosts and goblins. Simply, there are no goblins. None. Goblins do not exist.

Yes, I am aware that you are aware that goblins, the short, wrinkled, avaricious, sharp-toothed mythical creatures are not actual diminutive, gnarled, covetous, befanged creatures. No one thinks goblins are real, except maybe people in Iceland, where much of the populace does believe in Huldufólk.

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My aim, as with an arrow or sword tipped with a speck of dust from the uncrying eye of a maiden true—supposedly the only thing that can kill a goblin—is to debunk the idea that these creatures even exist once a year, in costumed form, on Halloween. Pairing “ghosts and goblins” as the twin totems of All Hallows’ Eve ignores what has been clear for a while now. You will not see goblins wandering the neighborhood alongside pirates, princesses, superheroes, or brothers Mario. Not a single goblin will come to your house asking for candy. No one is steeped in goblin lore. For instance, that part about the speck of dust from the uncrying eye of a maiden true? Totally made that up.

No one dresses as a goblin for Halloween. The biggest Halloween stores do not stock goblin outfits. Costume manufacturers will not manufacture cute little goblin costumes for cute little kids. Well, I found this one, but it involves hand-dying the top and pants and making your own bodysuit and hat. Pause now to consider that there are at least half a dozen choices for dressing your infant as a lobster.

The fact that the only kiddie goblin costume out there involves hand dying, and let’s say, feverishly working the foot treadles on a floor loom, indicates that goblins have gone where the goblins go—below, below, below.

Oh no, you say. Goblins survive, only now they’re in the form of greenish-hued Spider-Man villains, or they’re known as orcs, which is what J.R.R. Tolkien usually called such creatures. Those costumes aren’t very popular either, though, which isn’t odd considering that if a kid wants to inhabit an off-putting character played by Willem Dafoe he could quite easily dress as the video enthusiast who may or may not have murdered Bob Crane in Auto Focus. More importantly, these alternative incarnations aren’t proper goblins. Goblins have to possess the following characteristics:

1. Goblins need to be green.
2. Goblins need to have pointy ears.
3. Goblins need to have wrinkles or other forms of dermal degeneration.
4. Goblins need to have plentiful pointy sharp teeth.

The goblin playbook is dominated by one go-to move: biting innocents on the ankles. This is the power sweep of goblindom. Actually, it’s more like the Tim Tebow option run for -2 yards—a consistent if unpopular and ineffective maneuver.

Goblins are, in the most-Hobbesian sense, nasty, brutish, and short. Well, maybe not quite so powerful as to be brutish, but certainly displeasing, like a leprechaun with a meth problem. All this neatly explains our current goblin crisis. Goblins have disappeared from Halloween because they are just not fun creatures to inhabit. They are technically supernatural, but they are functionally sub-natural. Their powers are not frightening, their resources not vast. If you wish to be a slobbering ghoul, be a zombie. If you yearn for the destructive power of the night, be a demon. If you want to be creepy, be a longtime congressman from Queens with mayoral ambitions. Sorry, not fair—if you want to be creepy, the market is full of head-wound-approximating unguents, coagulants, and epoxies. Just affix them to your skull and outfit yourself in any outfit that already hangs in your closet. You’ve out-gruesomed the goblin.

As executive vice president of the family-owned Rubie’s Costumes, Howard Beige has been in the costume game his entire life. That game has largely been goblin-less. “Goblins have always been just a small part of the market,” Beige acknowledges. And while Rubie’s does make some of the only goblin masks on the market—“No. 4,253 is a nice one,” says Beige—they’re not huge sellers. Beige’s explanation centers on the goblin’s garment—just a plain black cloak. Without the opportunity to festoon oneself with goblin-alia, the potential goblin-goer turns his back on the dark gnomes.

In addition to not dressing well, goblins are not sexy at all—in fact, they are diametrically opposed to sexiness. And while it is true that goblin porn exists, it should be noted that 1) the goblins aren’t the object of lust in goblin porn and 2) every kind of porn exists. There is simply no way to conceive of a Sexy Goblin outfit, in the same way that a slice of pizza or a parrot so seamlessly lend themselves to slatternization.

Perhaps there was a time when goblin costumes were more popular—a simpler, more innocent era, when the nightmares of fiction needn’t have been truly monstrous to crowd out the nightmares of real life. When pizza was meant for eating and parrots were only lusted after by other parrots, and the occasional macaw.

Actually, that’s all nonsense (except for the parrot part). A scan of vintage Halloween costumes reveals some which could be dubbed goblins, but that’s only because the masks are so crude. Plastics, molding, and mass production technology, not to mention the means to purchase detailed masks, are all relatively new phenomena. Costumes that were once, perhaps, generically dubbed “goblins,” have now achieved much more specificity as, say, desiccated anthropomorphized death gourds or cackling, craggily faced, cleft-chinned, snaggle-toothed grave dwellers.

As a consequence, the goblin has gone from Halloween habitué to over-mentioned inaccuracy, a vestigial ghoul propped up by an idiom who does a disservice to the candy makers, the candy takers, and possibly Satan himself. Be gone, goblin, be gone.

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