When I was a kid, Halloween wasn’t a big thing in the UK. We used to look enviously at America, with its trick or treating, all day horror marathons and carved pumpkins, and think why can’t we have some of that? Well, now we have it, and Halloween has become a fun time for adults and children alike – an excuse to dress up, cut loose and unleash the inner goth.
Of course, wherever there is fun, there is also a buzzkill determined to stop anyone enjoying it.
When Halloween first started to become a thing in Britain, there was one thing that you could rely on – as regular as clockwork, in the week leading up to the big day, some attention-hungry vicar or other hand-wringing Christian group would pop up in the media, warning how celebrating Halloween was opening the gates of Hell, encouraging an interest in the occult, witchcraft and magic that would only lead to misery and the possible collapse of society. There’s a fine example of this nonsense here, with warnings that children were taking part in a “concentration on evil and making fun of potentially dangerous situations”, and would go the Hell for celebrating Halloween.
The press, ever keen on sensationalism, would give these buffoons more attention than they ever deserved, and pretty much everyone except embarrassed fellow believers laughed. How ridiculous it seemed, that someone would read so much sinister power into a simple costume or people attending a party. How silly, that they thought us so simple minded that just dressing up as a witch or a vampire would automatically lead the otherwise uninterested into a fascination with Satanism. How stupid they assumed everyone was, that we couldn’t differentiate between an exaggerated fantasy costume and the real thing. Silly, really.
The other regular appearance at this time of year was the angry newspaper column in papers like The Daily Mail, bemoaning the Americanisation of our culture as Halloween became our biggest unofficial holiday, and complaining that our proper celebration, Guy Fawkes Night, was being ignored. Desperate to turn back the clock, these moaners would impotently roar against the growing popularity of Halloween, just as they do any other aspect of modern Britain.
These days, the anxious Christians and grumpy Little Englanders are no doubt still out there, but they have been mostly replaced in the public consciousness by an equally ridiculous, but unfortunately more pervasive group – the professionally offended.
Things first stopped being funny in 2013, when both Asda and Tesco were forced to withdraw ‘offensive’ Halloween costumes – one described as a ‘mental patient’ and the other a ‘psycho ward’ outfit. Furious Twitter commenters – of course – were outraged that these costumes stigmatised mental illness. Yet the costumes simply played on horror movie tropes – even as the shops and online retailers hurried to pull the costumes from sale, the same stockists were probably selling films that featured psycho killers… films like Psycho, which you rather imagine many of the complainants and Tweetstorm bandwagon jumpers had seen and enjoyed. And one wonders how long costumes like this had been on sale before the determinedly offended finally found them – years, I suspect. The idea that such cartoonish versions of psycho killers would somehow change our perception of those suffering from mental illness is somewhat condescending. Such hyper-sensitivity does nothing to help the cause that the complainers claim to support – it simply alienates those who find themselves demonised for wanting to dress up as a horror movie-inspired maniac at Halloween.
Of course, people wanting to stop the negative stereotyping of the mentally ill is one thing. You can almost see their point, even if it is ultimately misguided and rather insulting to the public’s ability to tell fiction from reality. The problem is, once you give the offence brigade an opening, they never stop.
The current offence de jour is ‘cultural appropriation’, the most utterly ludicrous and dangerous idea to emerge in quite some time. It’s an idea that is currently very popular with academics, and so is becoming the norm amongst the sort of people who fret about safe spaces, no-platforming and other campus ideas.
And it’s increasingly seeping into the real world, with the hideous collision of people who desperately want to find offence everywhere and companies and individuals who are terrified of offending anyone – understandably, given the ferocity and venom of Twitch hunts – creating a perfect storm. The Outraged know that no matter how ludicrous their complaint, the targets will jump through hoops to apologise.
So now, the main threat at Halloween isn’t insensitive psycho killer costumes or your kids damning their souls to Hell, it’s white kids dressed in sombreros and ponchos. It’s a Disney costume inspired by their new movie Moana. It’s even – at it’s most extreme and ludicrous – people dressing as gorilla martyr Harambe (the ‘sexy Haramabe’ costume is actually a thing this year).
But fear not – the University of Florida is offering counselling to students traumatised by seeing an inappropriate Halloween costume. No word on if this hand-holding exercise will continue once the students have entered the real world, where they’ll find rather fewer fucks given for their delicate sensibilities.
The point is: surely, Halloween should be beyond any sense of good taste? It’s a night where the rules can be broken – where mischief runs riot. If we reach the stage where only an officially sanctioned costumes are allowed (and don’t think that that would stop at cultural appropriation) then we’ve pretty much sucked all the fun out of the event. Wouldn’t it be much nicer if we all treated this as the one time of the year where we leave our hang ups at the door, stop looking for reasons to be offended, accept that a costume does not have the power to reshape our beliefs and simply have fun?