There was a time when the most popular Halloween costumes were confined to the folk lore of vampire bats and ghosts. This was undoubtedly the popular culture at a time when “horror literature” was based on novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankensteinand Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Although much of this is still with us in the Trick of Treating of today, the past 50 years have a taken a more sinister turn.
With the release of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the 1970s, mental illness appeared to become an object of fear. There with no good reason for this sea change. The image of the “mental patient” restrained with a straightjacket seemed to become a stereotype of “madness”. It seemed to be that the more graphic the portrayal, the more likely was the transformation into a Halloween costume. We only need look at fictional characters such as Normal Bates in Psycho, Michael Myers in Halloween, Jack Torrance in The Shining and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs to see that both images and words have been translated into Halloween costumes and their descriptions. Mental illness had been carried into a very dark place indeed. Playing to the popular culture of the day is of huge concern if it continues to sweep stigma along with it.
In 2013, a large department store came under pressure to withdraw its “mental patient” costume for Halloween. As an apology for selling the costume, it did withdraw the costume from sale and also donated £25,000 to a mental health charity. You would have thought that would be the end of it, but far from it.
This month, I drew attention to the sale of a “psychotic nympho” Halloween costume resembling a straightjacket and another called “Psycho nurse Sally” whose “treatment is to drive her patients insane”. These costumes undoubtedly portrayed an ignorance towards those with severe mental illness, which remains seriously misunderstood by the public. Just over a week ago, an online petition was launched to ask the company in question to stop selling these costumes. One that has now gained nearly 8,000 signatures.
Yet, the same company continues to sell a “Psycho Wig”, with the description: “This psycho is out of rehab and has come especially this Halloween to plan something crazy with his friends and family. See if they want to be a part of your crazy psychotic plan!” Perhaps the most distasteful of all is the promotional video for the “Psycho Ward” costume of a muzzled man in a bright orange “psychiatric ward jumpsuit”, appearing to make several abnormal movements to appear frightening. The joke is obviously on them for misspelling the word as “phyco”.
Lobbying to persuade one company to stop selling a particular type of costume is a start, but a wider focus is needed to stop the perpetuation of mental illness as something to be feared and parodied. The same “psychotic nympho costume” can be found for sale at other online outlets. In fact, the source of these costumes appears to be a “Hells Asylum” range of “monster costumes” such as “sexy straightjacket” and “nurse delirium”. I wonder if the manufacturers have spent time with someone who has delirium and how terrifying it is for the person who has this mental disorder?
The facts about mental illness and violence fly in the face of public misconception. Although over a third of the public think people with a mental health problem are likely to be violent, people with severe mental illnesses are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violent crime. Most violent crimes and homicides crimes and homicides are committed by people who do not have a mental illness. If anything, people with mental health problems are more dangerous to themselves than they are to others. Yet, news stories about mental illness all too commonly report it in the context of violence.
As we approach Halloween, the image of mental illness behind a straightjacket or mask should be confined to the refuse bin of history. It should not be an annual occurrence that vaporises into the cached web pages of tomorrow; only to return the following year.
If Halloween is going to be fun for all, let’s make mental illness more understandable to all. I certainly hope to see that in my lifetime.