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Mental Illness Can Be Scary, but Please Don’t Do This at Halloween

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Just because mental illness is scary doesn’t mean you should make it into Halloween costumes.

Halloween costumes for adults have gotten ridiculous. You can find “sexy” costumes for almost anything. One year, I saw an ad for a “sexy crayon” costume. Then there’s this year’s I-kid-you-not “sexy mail-in ballot” costume. I find them perplexing and not at all sexy.

Another appalling trend in Halloween costumes, though, is the “mental patient” and “asylum” tropes.

We know that it is scary to have a mental illness. My bipolar disorder makes me question my every feeling and wonder if it’s real or pathology.

Mental illness is also scary to the general public, especially if they hear nothing but the fictional horror stories of “mental patients on murderous rampages.” The news media feeds these fears with endless speculations about what disorder a killer might have had or what psych meds they might have been on. They ignore the fact that people with mental problems are more likely to be victims of violence than causes of it. Only in extreme cases is violence even remotely likely. The “perpetrator must be ‘crazy’” reaction to reports of a seemingly inexplicable murder are nevertheless widespread.

Yet there remain harmful and outdated stereotypes regarding mental illness that manifest themselves in holiday costumes. The most common feature of a “mental patient” costume is a straitjacket, despite the fact that such restraints have not been used for decades. But “straitjacket” is visual shorthand for “dangerous mental patient.” It’s as out-of-date and offensive as “sexy nurse” costumes featuring short, tight white dresses and nursing caps, with oversized toy hypos. I haven’t seen a nurse in anything but scrubs in years.

Another disturbing trend among Halloween costumes is the association of mental illness with blood. Many of the costumes feature blood smears or bloody handprints. You can even get “insane asylum” home decor adorned with stark concrete walls and multiple blood smears and handprints. These are suggested for use in throwing “theme parties.”

Combining pop culture with “insanity” is another source for Halloween costumes. The Hannibal Lecter mask appears in many costume lists, often combined with a straitjacket. (It’s usually advertised as a “cannibal” mask, to avoid copyright difficulties.) Another, more recent, one is the Harley Quinn “Suicide Squad” costume, featuring tight short shorts, black hose and a huge prop hammer. (At least, as far as I know, no one has tried to do a sexy Hannibal Lecter costume, though I ought to Google it to make sure. There is a “sexy insane asylum patient” costume with a peek-a-boo straitjacket.)

Horror movies are also fertile ground for “crazed killer” costumes. In addition to Hannibal Lecter, there are “hockey mask” and “Leatherface” (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) masks.

If you find yourself at a costume party with a person wearing a straitjacket costume or a house decorated with an asylum theme, my advice is to leave immediately. Don’t engage in conversation. This is not the time for educating the populace on the realities of mental illness and the harm that stereotypes do.

Fortunately, this year there may be fewer costume parties because of social distancing requirements, fewer chances to insult and make fun of actual psychiatric patients and those who have spent time in psych wards.

Maybe by the time this pandemic is over, we can go back to insulting and misrepresenting Wiccans with “sexy witch” costumes.

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Originally published: October 13, 2020
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