Halloween: A Day When Anything is Acceptable?

Today is Halloween. So, not surprisingly, over lunch I’ve been thinking about Halloween costumes (and customs) in general, and three articles that I read this week in particular. This is something I’ve been thinking about since Saturday night when we went to the theatre in Hollywood on Metro, and were exposed to a large number of revelers in Halloween costumes going to various parties and clubs.

The first article talked about the increasing sexualization of costumes for girls. Basically (and I saw this on Metro), for adult women, the goal of a costume seems to be to expose as much skin as possible. Essentially, take any costume you can think of and put the adjective “slutty” in front of it… and voila, you have a modern costume.  It is no longer just slutty nurses, but slutty witches, slutty Darth Vaders, slutty … you name it. It’s also not just the women; I saw a number of men dress up in equivalently slutty costumes. The HuffPo article was commenting on how this trend has been extended down to children’s costumes. These costumes, which used to be innocent, now show more and more skin and are completely inappropriate for children.

The second article was a CNN exploration of offensive costumes. The jumping off point was a discussion of costumes that emphasized racist stereotypes. Is it reasonable, in this day and age, to go as the “slutty geisha”, the “dumb hillbilly”, the “sexy Latina La Llorona”, the “asian geek”. Is it better if you go as a particular individual? Why is it on Halloween that we are permitted to do racial stereotyping and not consider it offensive, in the name of “fun”.  When dealing with Halloween costumes, where should we draw that line, and why is it acceptable for that line to be drawn differently on Halloween?

The third article was an article from the Daily Cal about a frat house in Berkeley that displayed a hanging man as part of their haunted house decorations. A number of students complained because the mannequin had a dark grey head, and they felt it was too evocative of a lynching. It has since been removed, but it does raise the question of how many of our haunted house images are themselves racist or offensive. I’ve read a few articles on extreme haunted houses (WSJ, LA Times), and these houses are now going to psychological terror that leaves people shaking. There is touching, there are likely images of hangings and gruesome multilations. When does this become sexually offensive? When does this move to pure abuse? Is a simple legal statement sufficient to absolve one of responsibility?

And yet… and yet… I always think of the Kurt Vonnegut story “Harrison Bergeron“. Do we really want a world where no one can be offended or hurt; will it be too bland and prevent people from excelling. Finding the balance is difficult.

As for me, I’ve never been one to really get into Halloween. I’ve never understood the desire to put on a costume and play a character (perhaps this is why I never gravitated towards D&D and role playing)… although I certainly enjoy watching those who do (especially the slutty ones ;-)). My usual costume, when I was younger, was “college student”. Nowadays, it is homicidal maniac. I’d love to really understand the motivation of those who do–especially those who really get into it with elaborate costumes.

I’ve also never gotten into the notion of haunted houses, which to me are more “startle” houses. I guess some people just love the endorphins and adreneline, but I’ve never gotten into it. When I was in college, I used to regularly go to horror movies. I didn’t go to be scared; I went because my girlfriend at the time liked to go, and I saw it as an opportunity to be with her. I still do not find such movies terrifying (I find much more terrifying the scene in Star Trek where the alien insect eats Chekov’s brain). To me, the notion of wanting to terrorize someone (i.e., operate a house) or be terrorized is just a “safe” manifestation of domination/dominated type activities–a chance to explore one’s darker side. Perhaps that’s my problem — I don’t really have a darker side (or if I do, it is limited to the extent of observation only, as I truly enjoy watching people).

So how about you? What are your thoughts on the increasing sexualization of Halloween costumes? About the potential racism and stereotyping of costumes? About the notion of Halloween as a day to drop inhibitions?

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