Most years I’ve posted a Halloween message on this blog and in many cases I have used the space to extoll upon the virtues of this holiday. As I have often put it, Halloween is the celebration of carnality and fear. It is a contemporary Dionysian festival that functions as a sacrament in a post-religious age.
I think of Halloween as a counter celebration to traditional religious holidays, namely Christmas, and its value is found in the way it challenges conservative puritanical ideas. That has been the trajectory of the holiday over the past generation and a half. In the 1980s, media hacks and populist Christian leaders attempted to destroy Halloween (and line their pockets) by whipping up hysteria about poisoned candy and demonic child abuse cults. The lies were eventually exposed for what they were but throughout the 1980s and 90s Halloween changed from an innocuous holiday geared toward children and families and into an autumn Mardi Gras that primarily catered to adults. Far from disappearing, Halloween has become among the most popular and profitable holidays on the calendar.
But while rightwing religious zealots have moved on to other issues, Halloween faces a new challenge, one that is more complex and formidable: the patronizing protectionism of the liberal left, generally referred to as “political correctness.” Specifically, this threat has taken the form of bans and social shaming of Halloween costumes that are deemed to be inappropriate, insensitive, or offensive. Most alarmingly, this has primarily happened on college campuses, which are supposed to embody the essence of the marketplace of ideas.
This threat to Halloween is so insidious because it originates from a relevant and legitimate concern. Where the anti-Halloween ramblings of televangelists could be dismissed wholesale, the advocates of political correctness begin with a quite reasonable position: that certain costumes, such a blackface, reinforce stereotypes, insult minority communities, and strain the civility of the community. The advocates of political correctness argue that they are building a better and more inclusive community and on the surface that may be the case. Who wouldn’t prefer a world where people didn’t say stupid and hurtful things?
One of the popular phrases in the new political correctness movement is “safe space.” The very idea of the safe space is (to use another buzzword) problematic. Life is not safe. There is no gool. And instead of limiting the “safe space” to an appropriate context like the counselor’s office, the hypersensitivity of the safe space has spread to classrooms, online forums, broadcasts, and to private gatherings.
All crusades for social cleanliness eventually become absurd and ultimately eat their own tail. Just as there is a straight and relatively short line between obsessions with sexual purity and honor killings, efforts to create speech codes inevitably place certain words, topics, and ideas out of bounds. What’s more, the subjects that are partitioned are usually the things we need to talk about the most. Quarantining the issue does not make it go away. Instead it festers like an infected wound.
This brings me back to Halloween. As a holiday of evil, which is to say it puts us in touch with the uncivilized parts of ourselves, of our culture, and of life itself, Halloween exists on the boundary of social propriety. Costumes that channel and display sexuality, mortality, immorality, and the irrational are the most common and wearing these costumes is part of embracing those qualities.
Halloween’s allure is that it is simultaneously safe and unsafe. That’s its social function. Watching scary movies, attending haunted houses, and reading ghost stories puts us in a state of controlled fear. Wearing outrageous outfits requires a certain amount of social daring that is tempered by the knowledge that everyone else will look ridiculous too. It may not be a coincidence that the increase in Halloween’s popularity in recent decades occurred in tandem with a cultural obsession with safety that hedges on paranoia and takes the edge out of everyday existence.
Another important aspect of Halloween is its countercultural qualities. Where both religious and secular holidays pay tribute to the myths and institutions of our culture, Halloween destroys them. It is an irreverent holiday that tears down and desecrates the idols. Costumes are integral to that job. Not only do we adorn outfits that embody desires, heroes, and villains but we also inherently ridicule those archetypes through the act of dressing up.
Because of Halloween’s irreverent nature, offensive costumes are par for the course. But there are tiers of offensiveness. Some outfits, like blackface, do channel ugly stereotypes and tap into and reinforce systemic racism. But the demands of sensitivity have grown ever louder as the sphere of protectionism swells. Now costumes that even hint of “insensitivity” are grounds for outrage by the social justice hive mind of social media.
I understand when people get angry about blackface costumes. I have a similar reaction. But let’s be clear about something: costumes don’t make people racist. Racist people choose racist costumes. And by wearing such an outfit we know exactly who those people are and what they believe. So let assholes be assholes and then we’ll all know who they are.
I also have to wonder who we think we’re protecting and from what. A costume may be uncouth but let’s not kid ourselves into pretending that someone’s Halloween costume is the epitome of social injustice or that berating that person makes us virtuous. Bad taste is not a hate crime and Twitter pile-ons are not community organizing.
We need to cut each other some slack on Halloween. The very essence of the holiday is inappropriate. But further, Halloween is a release. There are a handful of nights each year when we give ourselves permission to go wild and blow off steam. This isn’t just an amusing indulgence. It’s a matter of individual and collective sanity. If we don’t allow ourselves to be naughty and outrageous, even on Halloween, we not only spoil the holiday but we also risk creating an emotional pressure cooker that’s going to explode one way or another and it’s going to be a lot messier than the aftermath of a raucous Halloween bash.
This said, I want to be absolutely clear about something. I am not advocating that you dress in blackface or some equivalent costume on Halloween. But I’m not going to tell you not to either. Instead, I’ll pose two questions. First, why do you want to dress in this costume? It may be that you think it’s funny or it may be part of a grandiose social statement. You may even think that your outfit is a show of solidarity with a marginalized group. But like any other outfit, a Halloween costume is a social interaction that announces to everyone else how you wish to be perceived. That leads to my second question: are you prepared to accept the social criticism that comes with such a costume? Even if you think blackface is funny or that your Ku Klux Klan robes are ironic, I can assure you that other people won’t. And if you intend your costume to be a piece of performance art or a political statement, realize that your message will be lost in the drunken haze of a Halloween mixer.
If you conclude that a racial or otherwise offensive costume makes an unpopular statement that is important for you to articulate, then by all means do so. But please, spare us all from your persecution complex when everyone else thinks you’re an asshole and says so on Twitter.
Early on in 1978’s Halloween, the sheriff says of the holiday, “Everyone's entitled to one good scare.” While that’s certainly true I think we’re also entitled to one good outrage as well. So as the sun sets and you head out for your Halloween plans, suspend your moral judgement just enough to have a good time. That’s what Halloween is all about.