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29 October 2014

What is it about fancy dress that makes us think we can behave appallingly?

Halloween is particularly bad for this – from Jimmy Savile costumes to “sexy ebola” outfits, we seem to see it as an excuse to be offensive. Much better stick to the traditional zombies and gore.

By Eleanor Margolis

How did a sombre Christian holiday, dedicated to remembering the dead, turn into an offensiveness contest? It’s a total non sequitur, if you think about it – a bit like a celebration of the birth of Christ evolving into a competition to see who can shove the most turkey into the most orifices, while worshiping a corpulent flying pensioner.

For the most part, I love Halloween. What could be more wonderful than pausing, once a year, to revel in darkness, and fear, and slime, and gunk, and spines, and bats, and blood, and pus? It’s like Halloween was specifically designed for outsiders, which is why it’s so popular with The Gays, and, what’s more, why the horror genre in general has so many queer interpretations.  

But, this year, people have already shunned vampire costumes in favour of ones that trivialise everything from the thousands of recent ebola deaths to domestic violence. Over the past week, pictures have been emerging online of men, and even children, dressing up as US NFL star and wife-beater Ray Rice. The Ray Rice Halloween costume, usually complete with blackface and an accompanying woman (sometimes represented by a blow up doll) with a black eye, has pretty much achieved meme status. This loathsome concoction of misogyny and racism is, sadly, Halloween 2014’s hot as hell get-up.

A Halloween dress code has developed, and here are the rules: wear the Worst Possible Thing. Offensive is the new scary. We take the saddest and most horrifying current events and turn them into outfits. In 2012, Jimmy Savile costumes had a moment. And, if in doubt, you can’t go wrong with a good old-fashioned celebrity death. Steve Irwin, impaled by a stingray, has been a Halloween stalwart for nearly a decade.  

So what is it about Halloween, and fancy dress in general, that we think gives us carte blanche to be arseholes? In 2009, a young Tory activist went to a fancy dress party in a Madeleine McCann costume.  I can’t imagine a more ghoulish costume than “young Tory activist”, so I’m not sure why this guy thought he needed to dress up in the first place. But he did and, in doing so, answered the age-old question of “how gross do you have to be to get kicked out of the Conservative Party”.

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Fancy dress parties trigger a kind of cultural Tourette’s Syndrome, where we’re compelled to behave in the least appropriate way, given the context. In a sense, Halloween has always been about saying the unsayable – but I have a feeling that taking the piss out of domestic violence victims might be taking things one step too far. Admittedly, there’s a fine line between breaking a taboo and being a dickhead. This has created lingering confusion in the art world, where we’re constantly wondering whether, say, projecting a grainy video of yourself taking a shit onto a gallery wall, is post-post-post-modern or just blindingly grim.

Nuance aside, I liked Halloween better when it was about dressing up as a zombie and playing drinking games to the Evil Dead films. Having to explain to someone why their abused woman costume is a cauldron of wrong surely isn’t conducive to a Fun Time. So please, for the love of gore, can we declare those Ray Rice guys the overall winners of the offensiveness contest and return to our wholesome fascination with putrefied flesh?