News Feature: Horror, Halloween and Mental Health

PrintE-mail Written by John Knott

You might have noticed the news stories about Asda and Tesco withdrawing some of their Halloween fancy dress outfits following an outcry from numerous public figures and at least one mental health charity. The problem is that the costumes entitled “mental patient fancy dress costume” and “psycho ward” were promoting negative stereotypes of those with mental health issues.

On the surface this would seem a straightforward story: Asda and Tesco have been pretty stupid, apologised and (in the case of Asda) have made a donation to the charity Mind. Check out the ‘net and you’ll find almost total universal condemnation of the costumes. But there are dissenting voices out there. The problem is that the costumes depict what are actually staples of the horror genre. In fact the “psycho ward” costume is clearly supposed to represent Hannibal Lecter and its name has probably more to do with copyright issues and a lack of imagination than anything else. Pick up a horror DVD and you’ll find rather a lot that mention “psychotic killers” on the back; some form of psychosis is the genre’s standard explanation for behaving in an otherwise inexplicably violent way. We might not use the phrase “insane asylums” too much nowadays (thank goodness) but these have been regular locations for many, many years in everything from Frankenstein to Batman while abandoned video equipment turns up in them with depressing regularity in Found Footage movies.

So what are we saying here? If the costumes are offensive or promote negative stereotypes then one has to assume that the stock characters they represent are just as bad. Well, perhaps they are; that’s certainly a valid viewpoint but probably not one that’d receive (rightly or wrongly) overwhelming support. But the characters themselves have never caused an outcry before so why now? Perhaps our attitudes are changing? Hopefully our attitudes to mental health issues are getting better but it seems a bit of a stretch to suggest that we’ve all suddenly decided, almost overnight, that these characters and locations are no longer acceptable in entertainment. Mental disorders are varied in both nature and severity; many of us have or will suffer from some kind of mental illness at some time in our lives; it’s a big issue. But one blogger seems to have nailed it when they say that these costumes actually don’t represent what anyone thinks is a real person with mental health problems. There might very well be stereotypical views of what sufferers are like but we’ll take a punt that most people are not thinking of Hannibal Lecter or a blood splattered grotesque wielding a meat cleaver.

The BBC also published a piece today on whether it is wrong to use the word “mental” in a joking way. To us, this seems to lie at the heart of the issue; language, as is often the case, is the real problem. Asda’s error was to call their otherwise innocuous product a “mental patient fancy dress costume”. We’ve seen people dressed up like this at Halloween and in movies a million times but we don’t like the idea that we’re making light of mental health issues and it is quite rightly no longer socially acceptable to do so. For some reason, the word “psycho” has somewhat different connotations and represents our fear of people behaving in dangerous ways we can’t understand. Had Asda just called it a “psycho costume” then we suspect they’d still be selling them and there’d be no news story today. Tesco just seemed to have been sucked into the whole affair with their similarly themed outfit and they’d have been left out had it not been for the Asda debacle. Mind you, including “ward” in the title of their costume probably wasn’t too clever; it tends to bring an unwelcome connection with reality in what is supposed to be escapist fun.

So one reading of all this is just that the costumes titles were unacceptable and that similar costumes with less ill-conceived names will be back in the future. But on the other hand, that might be hard for the manufacturers. They’ve withdrawn the products, not just renamed them; it’ll seem pretty crass if they just remarket them next year. A genie might very well have been let out of its bottle; this could even be a watershed moment. If these characters start to become unacceptable as fancy dress attire then, logically, we have to assume that the same will apply to the characters they’re based on. Will we be watching Psycho (1960) in years to come with a post-modern acceptance that, while brilliant, it couldn’t get made today? After all, Norman Bates just has some deep-rooted psychological problems that are not really his fault; surely we shouldn’t be getting a thrill from this? Maybe that’s even how it should be; we’ve been using these themes as a source of entertainment for a long time now but seldom stop to think about these issues involved. Have a look at other genres of movie and see how much has changed; how many depictions of race and sex have become utterly unacceptable today. On the other hand, horror has always been about making light of what scares us; there’s collective gallows humour to it. Death scares us but so does mental illness: Isn’t that why it’s such a common theme in horror?

Please don’t misunderstand us here, we’re not saying what is right and wrong in this issue; we’re just flagging it up as food for thought. But one thing we can certain of is there’ll be more witches and zombies around this Halloween than perhaps there might have been. What would our medieval ancestors have thought of dressing up as a witch for fun? Funny how what scares us changes over the years...

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