Some are in it for the tricks, some for the treats. Others do it for the excuse to put on another identity for a night. Occasionally, these identities spark controversy.
“In general, Halloween is about shocking people in some way — transcending cultural norms,” said VIU sociology professor Jerry Hinbest. “It usually is not about going ‘too far,’ but controversial is a common theme.”
The Halloween costume business is substantial; according to Statistics Canada, $21.6 million worth of costumes were manufactured in Canada in 2011. Each year, a few costumes pop up in stores that are inspired by recent people and events in the media. This year, Caitlyn Jenner and Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion, have hit shelves and webpages.
The Walter Palmer costume at costumeish.com is being sold for $139.99. Its description on the website reads:
All Doctor Palmer wanted was to hang dead animals in his house, but what started as an obscure (if legally-dubious) hunting trip has since erupted into a brouhaha of trans-Atlantic proportions. 2015’s most controversial killing has laid bare the rift in American and Zimbabwean attitudes toward exotic game-hunting and animal conservation pitting an outraged mob against a Minnesotan dentist in a scandal sure to be remembered for a generation.
“At a costume party, people get to play-act a different role — often choosing something very different than we portray in regular life,” said Hinbest. “These roles can involve switching roles with others, which can relieve a certain amount of tension, where tension in a society is high. For such situations as the lion-killing dentist, it may simply be a way of identifying the least horrific taboos in our society, and playing with them — perhaps by people who are normally very different in real life. Even so, we do not tend to use the most horrific taboos for such role playing –- sexual deviation or rape, for example — but it is not uncommon to include themes involving murder and violence.”
The Caitlyn Jenner costume, which is on several retailers’ shelves, such as Anytime Costumes, Spirit Halloween, and Wholesale Halloween Costumes, has gained criticism that it is transphobic. Some retailers advertise it as a men’s costume, while others are classified as unisex.
An online petition at change.org was created to ban the costume that stated: “Do not turn Caitlyn Jenner into a costume. Your profit will only lead to greater transphobia and marginalization of an already at-risk community.”
Yet, some view the costume as liberating for the transgender community, and a way to show support for Jenner and other transgender people.
“Someone could use it to show pride and support,” said Hannah Jarvis, a gender studies major at Simon Fraser University. “People go as famous figures all the time for Halloween, so I don’t see it as an issue, so long as the person isn’t trying to poke fun.”
Another controversial Halloween trend is dressing up as versions of members of particular ethnic groups. For example, “Poca-hottie:” A sexualized Indigenous woman costume stocked by several big costume stores that can be found under many names (ex: Wolf Warrior, Dreamcatcher Princess, Native American Woman). One version found on Party City’s website describes its women’s “Wolf Warrior” costume:
You’re one with nature in our Wolf Warrior costume! This sassy costume features a Native American-inspired fringed dress in black and turquoise. A beaded apron belt and arm cuffs provide extra historical styling. Finish Wolf Warrior Costume with the furry wolf-hood and you’re ready for a howling good night!
Chair of VIU’s First Nations Studies Keith Smith said these costumes could a have a negative real-life impact on Aboriginal women.
“These costumes are bound to affect how Indigenous women feel about themselves, and how others in society view Indigenous women,” said Smith. “Everything’s connected. You could make a direct connection between this and the issue of missing and murdered women because of the way it objectifies Indigenous women, and women in general.”
Smith believes that costume manufacturers are either blissfully ignorant, or simply indifferent to the issues costumes like these cause because of the heavy cash flow they receive. “We need to show people the connection between wearing these costumes and real problems in society,” he said. “I think a lot of people that wear the costumes don’t get that it’s a problem.”