Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Once again, we approach our annual holiday of horrors and, with it, the spooky weirdness that ensues when decent, ordinary citizens are subjected to the chain-rattling of certain grim specters and frightful bogeymen. I refer to those persons so imbued with liberal or conservative sensitivity that they would impose ideological prohibitions on children’s Halloween costume selection, depriving them and the holiday of that special magic: the freedom and power of a child to shock, repel, revolt and offend.

Actual true background: This nonsense began several years ago, when organizations ranging from the left-leaning Iowa City Affirmative Action Advisory Committee to a Costa Mesa evangelical Christian group called Citizens for Excellence in Education, began officially proscribing various Halloween costumes as offensive to particular ethnic, religious, or otherwise definable demographic groups.

And out of this came a new American holiday tradition: Annual reminders from the Halloween police that certain guises are improper, and to be shunned in favor of universally palatable alternatives.

Among those costumes now designated as politically or spiritually incorrect to at least some discernible voting bloc are--and I’m not making this up--Gypsies, Indians, old people, Africans, devils, witches, hobos, the “differently abled”--which pretty much kills that Captain Hook look--and slaves.

Now...this may just be me, but has anybody out there ever heard of any kid who went trick-or-treating as a slave? Is that the look that a kid on the make really wants? Wouldn’t the shackles dramatically limit your mobility and therefore, your total candy haul? Not to mention getting shortchanged on the handouts because, after all, you’re legally only three-fifths of a trick-or-treater?
In any case...among the costumes officially approved for wear--and again, these are their suggestions, not mine--are animals, food, inanimate objects, famous persons, book characters, people of different eras, and “friendly” monsters.

The idea clearly seems to be to avoid any look that might offend or upset any member of a demographic category known as “the currently living.”

Unfortunately, their attempt to impose rules of acceptable Halloween disguise have simply created a Gordian tangle of contradictions and ambiguities that merely complicate the whole costume issue. For example, witches and devils are impermissible because they carry “religious connotations” which may chafe the faith-based sensibilities of those Christians who take umbrage at costumes that depict their beliefs irreverently, or depict other beliefs at all.

But by the same token, this principle would seem to also rule out angel costumes, which might offend not only certain Christians, but also dedicated Satanists--one crowd you particularly don’t want to rile--as well as cowboy costumes, which cruelly confront devout Hindus with images of the barbaric, blasphemous pagans who herd, brand, and even castrate the cattle they hold sacred. In short, just kiss that John Wayne look goodbye, kid.

Then again, it might be worth donning that Junior Psychiatrist getup just to piss off the Scientologists.

On another front, hobo costumes are discouraged, presumably as visual affronts to transients, although you’d think that this particular social gaffe could easily be avoided by simply advising those kids who've chosen the “vagrant” look to skip their usual trick-or-treating at the local hobo jungle down by the river, at least for this year.

Still, it’s a shame to deny kids the very special childhood joy of getting to go out in public wearing clothing so vile and ratty that it makes their mother’s skin crawl--a moment that every child should experience. Perhaps an acceptable compromise might be to substitute for “hobo” some equally plausible characterization, such as “internet geek,” or “Hurricane Katrina refugee,” or “Russian businessman,” or “freelance humor writer.”

The “food” costume concept offers a world of possibilities, but most of them involve rather more sewing and fitting than the average parent cares to contemplate. Moreover, even this seemingly benign category is not without its potential for political or cultural incorrectness. That cunning pork loin getup could carry unfortunate Abu Ghraib connotations for the Muslim family down the block, even as, say, a corn dog costume might inflict genuine dismay on strict vegetarians, and forget the Oscar Meyer outfit altogether. (Then again, strict veggies usually hand out apples as Halloween treats, so why even bother knocking on their doors?)

One could, of course, select from an array of ever-popular vegetable costumes, such as your time-honored rhubarb, eggplant, and Jerusalem artichoke ensembles. But be wary of fruit costumes, which could be negatively misinterpreted in certain gay, Baptist, or military households. And the less said about the banana, the better.

“Friendly” monsters seems rather oxymoronic, if not downright baffling. In an empirical sense, your definitive friendly monster would be somebody like Ted Bundy, but there’s really no such thing as a clearly identifiable “charming serial killer” look The folks who made up this Acceptable Costumes list probably had in mind such harmlessly freakish characters as Uncle Fester Addams or Pauly Shore, but in fact, the cordial-yet-loathsome concept suggests a whole new field of possible costume subjects: tax auditor, telemarketer, airport solicitor, insurance salesman, Karl Rove.

You can see the problem: trying to impose “correctness” standards on Halloween merely creates a host of vexingly difficult choices. For example, must my little nephew give up his beloved Stephen Hawking portrayal because Hawking is “differently abled,” or is he still allowed it under the “famous persons” qualifier?

Come to think of it, does the “famous person” rule permit trick-or-treaters such roles as, say, Rafael Palmiero, Al Sharpton, Osama bin Laden, Tom DeLay, or O.J. Simpson, any of whom might be construed as offensive? And what, dear God, about Paris Hilton?

Is it okay to dress up as a football player, but not a Washington Redskin or Minnesota Viking, lest one offend Native or Scandinavian Americans? Is that little Ninja assassin getup just button cute, or emblematic of gratuitous violence? Does the Ghandi look honor an historic figure, disrespect a religion, or just recycle an old sheet? Does the admonition against “African” costumes also apply to African-American kids?

What we always considered a harmlessly silly children’s masquerade has been revealed as a minefield of potential insensitivities and difficult, soul-searching decisions. The magic is gone, and thanks a lot. I don’t know who makes up groups like the Iowa City Affirmative Action Advisory Committee or Christian Citizens for Excellence in Education, but I do hope somebody soaps their goddam windows, and that their kids then throw them out thereof.


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