Cosplay – which sees comic fans dress as their favourite superhero or villainous characters – is surging in popularity in the UK
It has helped former Police Service of Northern Ireland officer Gabrielle Riddiough overcome the mental trauma she suffered when she was almost fatally attacked.
The ex-PC, 36, believes that becoming a full-time cosplay artiste has been key to her coping with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The mother-of-two transforms herself to become Merida from the Disney movie Brave, complete with the lead character’s distinctive red hair, dresses and bow and arrow.
Gabrielle, who is appearing at next week’s Comic Con Scotland, said: “When I first became Merida, I forgot who I was.
“I became a different person and for the first time in a long time I was able to stand in a room without thinking, ‘Oh my God, someone’s going to attack me.’
“After all, who’s going to attack a princess? Who in the hell is going to want to hurt me dressed like this?
“My costume is my escape from my own self. And if you’re having a bad time, sometime’s its nice not to have to be yourself.
“While it might sound like a way of avoiding your problems, it’s not. For me, it’s simply enabled me to get on with the rest of my life.
“And I’m not alone – the cosplay community is full of people who use this crazy, amazing activity as a way of coping with serious family grief.”
Belfast-born Gabrielle’s life changed for ever on Hallowe’en 2014 after five years pounding the beat in Antrim.
She was attacked from behind after being called to break up a fight at a family fireworks event.
The brute who assaulted her inflicted dreadful injuries, leaving Gabrielle in hospital suffering a suspected brain bleed and post concussion syndrome.
She finally returned to work after six months but her recovery was hampered when her attacker escaped prison with a suspended sentence.
Gabrielle said: “I remember nothing of the attack – just waking up in a woman’s arms.
“I was told categorically that whatever way I happened to move my head saved me from being a one-punch statistic. He got me right on the temple.
“I’d wake up with physical scratches on my body where I’d tried to claw my way out of my nightmares.
“My mum lives behind me, so thankfully I could run to her when I was having a freak-out.”
She was eventually diagnosed with PTSD by her GP, and quit the force in the middle of 2015.
Gabrielle revealed: “Just listening to a police call would set off the anxiety. It became a big thing of not knowing who was behind me in a crowd, and not knowing who would help me if I needed help.
“As a PC I thrived on getting involved. And I never wanted to be in a situation where my colleague was having a hard time and I couldn’t react. I knew I had to leave.”
Speaking about her first foray into the cosplay world, at an event in Belfast in 2015 with her business manager husband Gordon, she said: “I bought a family ticket thinking that if my daughter and I didn’t like it we could go shopping instead – but I turned into a 12-year-old again. I was spellbound.”
She was instantly drawn to the character Merida from 2012’s Brave, which tells the story of an archery-loving, feminist Scottish princess.
Gabrielle added: “The film’s tagline is, ‘If you had the chance to change your fate, would you?’
“And this sounds cheesy, but Merida resonated with me. She faced problems and she fixed them herself. She didn’t need anyone to help her.
“I felt the same – there were parallels to my own life and I thought, ‘I need to start fixing myself, here.’ I became Merida in cosplay. And it helps that I’m a red head!
“Everyone saw a difference in my outlook. I was smiling and enjoying my life again.”
Gabrielle set up the When Involved Share Happiness (WISH) charity 18 months ago, forming a collective of cosplayers who attend charity events free of charge.
The 30-person strong group lends costumes to everything from family gatherings to the recent Pride event in Belfast.
Andy Kleek, organiser of Comic Con Scotland, said: “From the outside, cosplay might look very strange – superficially, it’s just people dressing up.
“But scratch the surface and you discover real, deeply emotional reasons as to why people seek to inhabit these characters.
“Like the very best superheroes, donning a costume can often be wonderfully transformative.”
Comic Con Scotland takes place November 10-11 at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. For tickets, visit here.