The dark side of caricatured Halloween costumes

By Stella Botes

Every Halloween we are confronted by costumes which caricature the mentally ill – this year it was a Walmart costume set of self-harm scars, or the Knott’s Berry Farm “FearVR: 5150” attraction (the Los Angeles Police Department code for a criminal with a psychiatric problem). Every Halloween we walk past and tolerate the bloody strait jackets and sexy ‘Anna Rexia’ costumes, but as mental health activism gains traction it is time to reconsider these mistakes and stop accepting the apologies of huge corporations. The relationship between mental health and the horror genre is a thorny one, with a rich history, but it is time that the problems of the mentally ill ceased to be appropriated for the public’s pleasure.

It is important to understand exactly why such products are harmful. It’s easy to simply dub them as insensitive, but this fails to fully uncover why these costumes are such a problem. The concept of ‘stigma’ is thrown around so much nowadays that its meaning can be lost, but if there is any situation which could exemplify stigmatisation, it is Halloween. When someone chooses to dress up in a bloodied strait jacket they are perpetuating the image of the mentally ill as incapable, violent and out of control, this is stigmatisation. It furthers an already muddied concept of mental health to a point of falsehood. The problematic presentation of already vulnerable figures adds an even greater weight to pre-existing stigmas and results in difficulty integrating with society.

And stigmatisation has real implications. It doesn’t just develop misunderstanding and a lack of empathy – two very legitimate and dangerous consequences – but can also result in discrimination in employment and welfare. Worse still, the violent portrayal of the mentally ill can lead to psychiatric abuse and inadequate care. Attending an attraction such as “FearVR: 5150” perpetuates misunderstanding of psychiatric wards and discourages the vulnerable from seeking help for fear not only of ‘terrifying’ inmates but the knowledge that the public will see them in this way. The setting of a psychiatric institution for Halloween entertainment reinforces the stigma surrounding an environment purposed for healing and recovery, making admittance more upsetting than it should be.

The most alarming thing about these attractions and costumes, with their implications in mind, is that they were made for public consumption. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to explain their production. Throughout history, mental illness has been shrouded with fear and misunderstanding – Mr Rochester’s ‘mad’ wife Bertha locked in the attic in Jane Eyre, the ‘psychopath’ Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs, and even more recent releases like Split which blames Dissociative Identity Disorder for the actions of an abusive, serial kidnapper. It is for this reason that it is no surprise that the public view of mental illness, particularly personality disorders and psychosis, may be tinged with misunderstood fear. As Sarah Ruston asserts, in her article on Halloween and mental health for Doll Hospital Journal, “this is why Halloween attractions and costumes like this are still sold: because it’s often the only identification people have with mental health issues: that it’s okay to fear or mock them”. The exhibition of mental illness has manifested itself in many forms since early Austrian psychiatric wards would display patients to the paying public. We are taught to fear the mentally ill because of society’s rejection of otherness and the unknown. When the cause of unusual behaviour is wholly internal, it is difficult for the observer to find an easy explanation.

In reality, mental illness is scary. Having no grasp over your actions or words is frightening to say the least, as is the process of recovery can be equally terrifying. The relentlessness of mental illness is exhausting: the consistency of the fear, whether it is the next meal, a depressive episode, or a psychotic hallucination, is painfully real. For a mentally ill person, there is no need for a horror movie or costume to make the experience terrifying, it often already always is.

It’s time to stop treating the reaction to offensive costumes as oversensitive. When the public engage with misrepresentations in media each Halloween, they choose to perpetuate a distorted depiction of something very real, rather than explicitly unreal monsters, and as such, which directly impacts an already misunderstood and vulnerable minority. People who dress in this image for one night misconstrue and undermine the everyday struggles of sufferers.

Photograph: Ben Ketteridge via Flickr

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