Ladies and gentlemen, Halloween season is upon us. You know what that means — discussions in October will consist of nothing other than the scary, the supernatural and best of all, the supremely awesome costumes. Whether you prepare for an entire year, the whole month or the day before, selecting the perfect Halloween costume is often serious business. And not just for you — Americans spend around $6 billion on Halloween annually, so it’s actually serious business for party stores and pop-up costume shops across the country. However, October also particularly marks the start of another renowned time: offensive costume season.
For every meticulously planned zombie or superhero costume there are also, inevitably, lazily-planned racist, sexist or ableist costumes. Every Halloween season, it’s almost guaranteed that an insensitive and ignorant retailer will create and stock offensive costumes for people to buy. It’s become such a prevalent practice that sometimes it doesn’t even feel like Halloween is truly here without it. At the same time, however, these costumes are becoming more and more unacceptable, especially in our more socially conscious environment. This year, one costume that has received some very serious backlash already is a blood-spattered outfit “inspired” by mentally ill psych ward patients.
The costume, sold by three North Carolina Halloween stores, consists of hospital scrubs featuring the words “Dorothea Dix Psych Ward,” a reference to a now-closed Raleigh hospital that once treated the mentally ill. After vehement objection from both customers and mental health advocates who claim that the costume treats chronic illness as a joke, the stores were asked to remove it. Unsurprisingly, the response from the company that owns the Halloween store chain was that they were just trying to come up with a costume that had “local flavor” and people should “lighten up.”
This begs the question: when does the appropriation of an image become a complete trivialization — a mockery — and not a positive or lighthearted tribute? Take the ever-present issue of people dressing up in blackface and yellowface, appropriating religious symbols or donning sombreros, turbans and Native American headdresses. A number of campaigns have been created to end both the practice and continued sale of these costumes, proclaiming that a culture, race or ethnicity is not a “costume”, nor is it something that you can take off at leisure. The same concept can definitely be applied to this “psych ward” costume.
Mental illness is not a cool outfit you can put on and simply remove at the end of the night. For many, it is something you carry with you for extended periods of time, sometimes for life. Costumes like these both trivialize and stigmatize serious issues. We currently live in a society that still severely lacks in knowledge of mental health issues in general, and still lives in fear of people with mental illnesses while not taking them seriously. These costumes only perpetuate stereotypes of mentally ill people as deranged and violent. Most people with mental illnesses are not violent, but a generously blood-spattered shirt such as this one might indicate otherwise. We shouldn’t keep projecting such an image, or allow one to be projected at all.
Both Halloween retailers and prospective customers need to realize that once a costume becomes offensive, it’s not “all in good fun” anymore. Many may blame it on our society becoming “too” politically correct and socially conscious for anyone to have a good time anymore, but agreeing with this would imply that being more socially conscious is a bad thing. It’s not. It helps us to be more considerate of others, and it allows us all to find a way to enjoy ourselves without defaming those around us.
For one night every year, we are given the opportunity to go all out with crazy makeup, wigs and outfits. We can be anyone we want to be, anyone but ourselves. It’s hard to explain and even rationalize these days, but somehow, dressing up for this holiday is still awesome. Like I said before, it’s serious business — so we all should make the right decisions. There are literally thousands of costumes to choose from for all of your Halloween celebrations, don’t resort to “ironically” offensive costumes or even explicitly derogatory ones. They are regressive and unacceptable, plain and simple. There’s no valid excuse for them anymore.