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Trick nor Treat: the hounding of Halloween

Dressing up for Halloween has been cancelled by the culture police

This year come 31 October, Student Union officials across the English-speaking world will be at a loose end. Under the current lockdown, Halloween – except for straggling groups of half a dozen gremlins and warlocks – has effectively been cancelled, and those costumes SUs are increasingly fond of policing with it. Nor will anyone look favourably on children coming to their door with faces covered, demanding – like miniaturised bank-robbers – recompense for their potential superspreading. The only tricks on offer will be state-manipulation of Covid-19 data, and when a “treat” means a socially distanced pub-table with a 10pm lockdown, the word sheds a bit of its pizzazz.

This is bad news for journalists too, as cautionary articles on Halloween fancy dress now come yearly and, along with giant house-spiders, are the perfect autumn recycle. Type “offensive Halloween costume” into Google and you will get nearly 11 million results, from which you can pick almost at random the same sentiments.

Love letters to other cultures are no longer acceptable

Last year, among others, CNN ran an interactive website which walked you through your choices and their potential for social suicide (“Does it capitalise on a tragedy or crisis?” “Is it a controversial political figure”?). Yahoo News sermonized to us about the 7 Halloween Costumes we “definitely shouldn’t wear”. These included a “Mexican Wall” and Harvey Weinstein, who was “off limits and even triggering for those who have been victimised”. In Teen Vogue a year earlier we found out “How to Not Be Offensive with Your Halloween Costume”. One sentence read: “Leashes are problematic in this context, not only when one considers the real dangers many women face and the abuse of sex workers…”

These may have been additions to the “finding-problems-where-they-don’t-exist” genre which has boomed in the past decade and even defined it. But how did we get here?

The roots of Halloween are shrouded in October mist, though it’s thought to date back to Samhain; an ancient Celtic festival celebrating the end of the harvest season. The custom of “guising” (dressing up in costumes), has been well-documented in Britain too since the 16th century. Yet it wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s in the US that the practice became commercialised, as companies like Ben Cooper Inc. began to mass-produce devil, ghost and skeleton costumes, and Pittsburgh’s Halco company began licensing cartoon characters like Poppy and Mickey Mouse.

By the late 1960s, Cooper’s had gone political with their first Richard Nixon mask, and there was a slew of sexy costumes: raunchy policewomen, nurses, nuns and bodybuilders. Referring to the Halloween heyday of the twentieth century, expert Lesley Bannatyne (writer of five books on the subject), pointed out that “people also became fascinated with impersonating characters on the fringe of society”. These might have included gypsies, homeless people, and – significantly – Hispanics and Native Americans. Come 31 October, anything went.

Dressing up these days, at any time, is brave

Until recently, that is. Following increasing attacks against “cultural appropriation” – a concept first explored by art historian Kenneth Coutts-Smith in 1976 – lawyer and legal scholar Susan Scafidi wrote the 2005 article “Who Owns Culture?”. In it she defined said appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission”. This included the “unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” The mystery of how such authorisation could be sought – was there someone you could telephone? – didn’t stop the article from having its intended effect. Thence to Halloween – a night of cultural appropriation unleashed, unmuzzled and out on a drunken spree – which was plainly in for a pasting.

Two years later, it got it. In the journal Qualitative Sociology an article appeared entitled “Unmasking Racism: Halloween Costuming and Engagement of the Racial Other”. Its three authors – Jennifer C. Mueller, Danielle Dirks and Leslie Houts Picca – were clearly gunning for the pagan festival, tooled up with all the knotty jargon they could wish for.

“Whites,” they declared, “contemporarily engage Halloween as a sort of ‘ritual of rebellion’ … that ultimately reinforces white dominance … While a costume may represent an ultimately aggressive judgment about its target, the joking nature of this practice makes acceptable the sharing of information, which in its unadulterated form might be considered unacceptable.” Halloween humour was, they said, “an effective tool in communicating racist thoughts, particularly in the contemporary post-Civil Rights era where open, frontstage expression of such ideas is considered socially taboo.”

Put into normal English this seemed to mean the following:

  1. Halloween costumes were often at someone or some group’s expense
  2. They were thus an act of aggression
  3. Following the Civil Rights movement, the jokiness of Halloween was one of the few ways racists could safely express their bigotry without paying for it.

It therefore implied that the humour and play of Halloween was, if not automatically racist, at least to be scrutinised with a very cold eye. The notion someone might innocently wear a costume because it was fun, funny or looked sexy didn’t occur to the writers. It wasn’t so much “Reds under the bed” as “Nazis behind the comedy-yashmak.”

These new, half-baked ideas inevitably found their fans on campus. In 2011, a group at Ohio University called STARS (“Students Teaching about Racism in Society” – a phrase at which the heart signally fails to turn somersaults) produced a series of posters entitled “We’re a culture, not a costume”. Featuring unconvincingly poe-faced and wounded-looking individuals of various ethnicities, they showed us the different costumes which had traduced their culture – the suicide bomber, the Geisha Girl, the moustached, sombreroed Mexican – over the slogan:

“This is not who I am. And this is not okay.”

Naturally there was pushback to this – most students had better things to worry about and didn’t like seeing their liberties curtailed – and it came in a series of memes. They showed a Halloween Dalek, an Egyptian Mummy and a Vampire, all crying out for the same sensitivity. A pantomime horse frolicked beside the slogan: “For shame, for shame you pony folk/This is my culture and this is not a joke.” It may have highlighted the absurdity of the STARS campaign, but it didn’t make any difference. The other side was winning.

Halloween is one of those occasions on which such pieties ought to be suspended

One can pick various key-moments from the 2010s in the battle over costumes. Though they found their natural endpoint in the Halloween Party, they often took place outside it. There was the abject apology Victoria’s Secret and their model Karlie Kloss had to issue in 2012, after she appeared at a fashion show wearing a Native American head-dress. Two years later, Pharrell Williams and Harry Styles got Twitterstormed for doing the same. When Avril Lavigne released “Hello Kitty” in 2014, complete with Japanese lyrics, cupcakes and Japanese girls bopping in shorts and icing-sugar-pink tights, it was denounced as “cringeworthy” and “abhorrent”. No matter that Lavigne’s detractors were unable to find a single Japanese person offended by the video. Clearly, for those policing our diversions, love letters to other cultures just weren’t “okay” anymore.

It was in 2015 that the first human scalps were claimed. At Claremont McKenna College California, Junior Class President Kris Brackmann was pictured schmoozing beside two female students in sombreros, fake moustaches and ponchos. She was forced to resign, with the usual self-accusation:

As a bystander I did not assertively speak out against the costumes, despite knowing that they were disrespectful. Even worse, I associated myself with the offensive message by willingly standing in a photo with the costume… I am regretfully sorry to have been associated with this harmful incident, and after thoughtful consideration I have decided to leave my position as the Junior Class President.

Brackmann had not even been wearing a costume.

Yet this storm in a tequila-glass at CMC was drowned out by the Halloween-ruckus taking place over at Yale, Connecticut. Here, just preceding the holiday, an email co-signed by 13 administrators was sent out advising students to avoid all “culturally unaware or insensitive choices” when picking out their costumes.

In response a Yale teacher, Erika Christakis, wrote an email of her own demanding, “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgement? Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.” Quoting her husband, Yale Professor Nicholas Christakis, Master of Silliman College, she added “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended … Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

Given that she was defending the rights of the students, there was some irony in the student-led attack which then ensued. A petition against the pair of them circulated and received scores of signatures. Nicholas Christakis’s words “away” had been seized on: “You ask students to ‘look away’ if costumes are offensive, as if the degradation of our cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it is something that we can ignore.”

Soon afterwards Christakis found himself surrounded on campus by a large gang of undergraduates, verbally assailing him as if he were head executioner at the Srebrenica massacre. The exchange, caught on camera and uploaded to YouTube, makes queasy if compelling viewing. Christakis is accused of “strip[ping]” students “of their humanity” and creating a “space for violence”. In return he defends himself, calls for dialogue and smiles placatingly at them. The ensuing verbal attack has a ritualistic, rites-of-passage quality, almost as though teacher and student have swapped places.

“I do not respect you,” one student harangues him. “I’m looking at the smirk on your face and I am disgusted… I want your job to be taken from you… Understand that! Look me in my face first of all and understand that you are such a disappointment to this university, to your students, to yourself.”

“Why the fuck did you accept the position?” screams another. “Who the fuck hired you? You should STEP DOWN. It is not about creating an intellectual space. It is NOT. Do you understand that? It’s about creating a HOME here… You should not sleep at night. You are DISGUSTING.”

There are quite enough idiots this October wandering around in masks already

The following May, they did step down. Neither is now in charge of Silliman College, though Nicholas Christakis retained his position as a Yale professor. Erika Christakis gave up teaching at Yale and concentrated on writing about pre-school children – if she finds this age-group easier to work with, she can scarcely be blamed. What’s clear from the Halloween crisis at Yale is that, when foolish ideas have gestated, communication breaks down into something approaching violence. The adults have to mime taking dumb ideas seriously, while the young and impressionable move about in a kind of psychosis that they’ve been deeply wronged. It all feels as substantial as a soap bubble though far less easily pricked. You long for someone to step in and ask the unaskable: why any of this stuff actually matters, and why they are doing this to themselves.

In 2018, the Halloween costume-lockdown crossed the Atlantic. Kent University Student Union issued a ban on costumes with one of those faintly sinister lists that always tells you trouble is about and your ways of escape are being blocked. From now on the following were prohibited: The Crusades, Nazi uniforms, priests, nuns, cowboys, Native Americans, ISIS bombers, Israeli soldiers, Tory boys, chavs, the prophet Mohammed, and so on.

Instead they were advised to stick to (another list) “cartoon characters, letters of the alphabet, ancient Greeks, Romans, doctors and nurses”. A year later in 2019 Sheffield University followed suit, though went one better. “My Culture is Not Your Costume” boomed a series of prohibitive posters displaying a sombrero, a Native American head-address, and what appeared to be a belly-dancing costume with harem pants. Underneath them, in smaller font: “This Halloween, question whether your costume choice mocks or demeans other people for their race, religion, culture or disability.”

It was eerily similar to the 2011 Ohio STARS campaign, which it had clearly taken as its template. Even the slogan was borrowed from campuses in the US. Never was it clearer that North American culture, which in its time had delivered Duke Ellington, Road Movies, Marilyn Monroe, the Western, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the middle-period films of Woody Allen, was now bringing us the things that sapped life rather than gave birth to it: the bland leading the bland.

One imagines such Student Unions will feel a genuine sense of loss this year, as they seem to derive more significance and sense of mission from Halloween than any partygoer or trick-or-treater ever could. It may be there’s a legitimate conversation to have about comic stereotypes and the dehumanising effects thereof. Yet one suspects it will be conducted one-way by the wrong people, and that Halloween is one of those occasions on which – for all our sakes, students or not – such pieties ought to be suspended.

It may also be that this generation of student-activists, like those before them, are fighting for a kind of freedom. But whereas earlier generations demanded the right to say and be whatever they wanted; the current crop’s struggle is to protect themselves from those who would do the same.

There is no reason university should pretend to be real life or a preparation for it. It is in fact one’s last whirl of irresponsibility before drudgery and compromise beckon. But, as the writer Andrew Sullivan pointed out, “We all live on campus now”. Anyone who doubts that these same values are spilling out into everyday life need only see the pastings that Adele and Gal Gadot recently got on Twitter. The first was attacked for daring to wear her hair in Bantu knots, the second for being cast – an Israeli actress – as Cleopatra. Dressing up these days, at any time, is brave.

It’s an irony Covid-19 has gone one further than the cultural police have managed and left the student population neither all-dressed-up nor with anywhere to go. Perhaps though, given 2020’s abiding, ghoulish weirdness, it’s a good thing if Halloween is put temporarily on hold. The night of the living dead isn’t over yet, and we’ve had about as much danse macabre as most of us can take. You can have too much of a good thing even if it’s meant to be wicked. And, to put it bluntly, there are quite enough idiots this October wandering around in masks already.

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