WASHINGTON, October 29, 2014 — “Daddy, what are you going to be for Halloween?”
“How about the Masque of the Red Death?” My children haven’t read Poe yet, so in response to their blank stares I added, “I’ll wear a cowboy hat and have blood dripping out my ears and from my eyes. I’ll tell everyone I’m from Dallas.”
My kids think that sounds like a great costume. Not everyone agrees. “That’s awful” is a common response, in a tone of strong disapproval.
Why “awful”? Is it more tasteful to show up at a Halloween party dressed as a sexy nurse, a slasher-killer, a bloody cheerleader, a terrorist or the pope? How about dressed in an ethnic or racially insensitive costume: geisha, Indian, jihadist? Don’t dress in lederhosen if you aren’t German or Austrian, or in wood shoes if you aren’t Dutch.
Halloween costume fashions track popular culture. One year priests and nuns are all the rage, another year it’s zombies. Celebrities, politicians, and TV characters all have their day at Halloween parties.
So why not Ebola?
You can buy a “sexy Ebola containment suit” online, or you can play it straight with a costume that includes gloves, protective head covering, and a full-body protective suit. Some stores have refused to carry them, condemning them as in bad taste.
The Scotch of St James, a club in London planned an Ebola-themed party called “Saturday Night Ebola Fever.” The organizers planned to enforce a strict dress code: “No costume, no entrance.” After accusations of trivializing Ebola and reprehensible insensitivity, the organizers engaged in the modern ritual of self-abasement: They apologized for any upset or offense they inadvertently caused, assured everyone that giving offense was not their intent, took down their Facebook page, rebranded the event “Saturday Night Fever,” and promised to collect money to fight Ebola.
Costumes will presumably still be required, but instead of the insensitivity of respirators, full-body protective gear and the moans of the infected, guests will be subjected to the horror of white polyester leisure suits and the Bee Gees.
People are dying of Ebola. That’s not funny. But in an age of heightened sensitivities, it’s hard to tell what’s more insensitive: having a laugh at a crisis that is killing thousands of people in West Africa, or at a crisis that’s keeping American children home from school and their parents away from he bowling lanes from “an abundance of caution.”
People who object to Ebola costumes may say they mock the tragedy unfolding in West Africa, but more than a few don’t give West Africa a thought; they consider this an American crisis. You don’t mock your fellow Americans in a crisis. You don’t make fun of your neighbor’s fears.
Why not? Your neighbor is a ninny who deserves to be mocked. This crisis has killed exactly one person in America, and the total number of people who have been infected in the U.S. so far is exactly two.
Ebola in Africa is a slow-motion disaster. Ebola in America is political theatre. It’s also another opportunity for people with more privilege than brains to wring their hands over a terrifying, unpredictable world.
There’s no Halloween costume that won’t offend someone. There will be hundreds of thousands of young slashers walking the streets and attending office parties this week, insensitive to Americans who have lost loved ones to violence. Young girls across America have gone the sexually provocative route for years, oblivious to people whose children have been victimized by sexual predators. You want to dress like a hobo? That’s offensive to the poor. You want to dress like a clown? That’s offensive to coulrophobes.
Is an Osama bin Laden costume in bad taste? How about a Barack Obama mask? How might black Americans view a police officer costume? Some conservative Christians are horrified by people dressed as witches and devils; celebration of the Satanic is offensive.
In the aftermath of 9/11, 2001, people wondered how long it would take for late night comedy to become acceptable again. Not long, as it happened, and al-Qaeda turned out to be a fine target for humor.
In this enlightened age, we forget that people once believed in the terrors that entertain us on Halloween. Halloween was a time to walk whistling past the graveyard, an occasion to mock the things that terrified us.
The Poe story my children don’t get is about a thousand nobles who seal themselves off in an abbey from a plague that sweeps the land. They want to party and not think of what’s happening outside, so when someone appears wearing a funeral shroud and the bloody mask of a victim of the Red Death, the host, Prospero is enraged. He chases the interloper from room to room, demanding to know who he is before he kills him, finally confronting him in a black room, looking him in the face, and dying of the Red Death. The other guests strip away the mask and the shroud and discover that there’s nothing there.
Then they die.
We can lock off our country like Prospero locks up his abbey, we can recoil in horror at the face of Ebola, but we can no more control our fate than we can control the wind. Everyone dies. We can take precautions against Ebola, but we can’t guarantee it will stay away. We can face death with humor, and even mock an enemy that will finally win, or we can pretend that it’s someone else’s problem and, like Prospero and his guests, treat it with dread and take offense when it’s even mentioned.
White America loves nothing more than to take offense on behalf of someone else. Indians may not appreciate party-goers dressed as Pocahontas or an Indian brave, but it will probably be a well-off white person who throws a fit over it. Ebola is a wonderful opportunity for first-world sanctimony. That makes it a wonderful target for Halloween.
Don’t mock the victims of Ebola. They deserve nothing but our help and our compassion. But people who are afraid to go to Dallas? They deserve no respect, no delicate attempts to avoid offense, but only mockery. President Obama, our invisible Ebola Czar, Governor Chris Christie, and Ebola itself can all be mocked, and probably should be. You’re offended? Grow up. Everyone has reason to be offended. Grownups get on with their lives anyway. It’s time to party.
Jim Picht has not yet decided whether to dress as a Dallas Ebola victim for Halloween. He’s also considering wearing a yarmulka and carrying a long kitchen knife to see how many people know what a mohel is. But, currently suffering from a mild fever and digestive upset, he may just quarantine himself for a few days with a good book, some good movies, and a bottle of something medicinal.