Halloween and representations of mental health

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‘Mental Patient’ costume. This is clearly inspired by Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter. Does that make it ok? And who is to blame for the offense? The author of the book? The director of the film? Or the costume maker?

As Halloween looms closer, I’ve noticed a considerable number of stories appearing in my time-line about ‘scary mental illness’ being used in Halloween media. The best known examples being the campaign for Asda and Tesco to take down ‘mental patient’ costumes, and the current debate over Thorpe Park’s ‘Asylum‘.

Mental health service users  have been debating these issues online with strong opinions on both sides. On the anti-campaign are claims that these images of people with mental health problems as frightening are deeply stigmatising and build into the damaging discrimination that people experience. Mental health charity Mind encouraged followers to tweet pictures of themselves to who what a real ‘mental patient’ outfit would look like.

On the other side have been voices (including those of people who have experience of mental health problems) saying that these costumes and attractions are clearly based on horror movie imagery rather than real mental illness and that the campaign has drawn further attention to the attractions and made people with mental health problems appear obsessive and joyless.

I haven’t fully formed an opinion on either side. The costumes are indeed insensitive, though they wouldn’t be the only ones out there. Though I don’t necessarily support it, fancy dress is often very un-PC. Cultural appropriation is rife (think red indian and geisha costumes), as is sexism. When it comes to Halloween, I wonder how pagans/wiccans and people with facial disfigurements feel about the other ‘scary’ costumes out on sale? Everyone has the right to be offended and express their view, but if we take down these ‘patient’ costumes, we should probably do away with many of the others also.

The idea of someone with mental health problems as scary wasn’t invented by costume makers. We have a long history of characters in horror films who are portrayed as suffering for mental illness, often shown as the ‘motive’ for their behaviour. The ‘psycho-killer’ is a common stereotype. These films are very popular and the incredibly negative portrayal of mental illness has seemingly gone unchallenged. Often these ‘mental patient’ costumes seem to be based on characters like Silence of the Lambs‘ Hannibal Lecter.

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Mental illness and horror – a popular combination?

An abandoned asylum is often a horror movie setting (think House on Haunted Hill). Asylums have an awful history, and rightfully so. The patients who lived in these asylums were subjected to awful treatment, and there’s a reason why these places were shut down. Some horror films have used this history, portraying cruel doctors and the kinds of horrific ‘treatment’ that was given out. Unfortunately some have preferred to focus on the patients themselves, and characterised them as frightening characters. Mental health problems can cause someone to act in a way that others might find hard to understand and frightening, but these media characterisations of scary patients surely does nothing to encourage understanding.

In one of Thorpe Park’s responses to the campaign they commented that the ‘Asylum’ attraction has been running for 8 years without complaint, and has been popularly attended. Why is it that uproar is only gathering now? Similarly, the ‘mental patient’ costumes are not new this year. It may be that mental health campaigners feel more empowered to take a stand and take on companies profiting from these negative stereotypes. While I hope this is the case, I think we need to consider why we’ve let negative portrayals of mental illness go so unchallenged for so long. We’re appalled by the straight-jacketed costumes but still flock to the films that inspired them. These costumes are in bad taste and I wouldn’t like to belittle the hurt they’ve caused to an already stigmatised group, but I think amidst the uproar surrounding them we need to think about where these ideas originate and whether taking down the costumes and attractions will really get to the heart of the stereotypes and stigma around mental health problems.

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Halloween Costume Inspiration: Robotica

So, what did everyone dress up as for Halloween? I’m actually celebrating it next weekend, so I think I still have a bit of mileage for thinking about costume ideas (and buying all the spooky tat I can get my hands on).

I’ve dressed up as a robot before. It mostly involved cardboard and a lot of tin-foil. However the look can be done much better, going for more of a bionic look, half-human half-robot, or something of a futuristic cyborg. Or saving that, just taking a bit of inspiration from Barbarella to create a shiny silver space-age outfit. Here are a few of my picks for tough and shiny things.

The 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Red Carpet

I had no idea who this woman was (apparently she is a Russian singer), but this terminator-style arm piece kicks so much ass. Designed by Leonid Gurevich and created by avant garde jewellers Gilding Primal Instinct, it’s made out of replica guns.

Girl Armour specialise in these one-off, amazing breastplate outfits. I’ve never seen anything quite like them, they’re crafted to such fine detail. They look pretty sturdy too, don’t imagine they’re all that comfortable to wear.

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The Lascivious SS13 collection features this great metallic two-piece that seems a bit too special to hide under clothing.

Closet Skeletons – Halloween Inspiration

Photo by Pauline Darley. 

It’s less than a month until the dress-up event of the year (Purim excluded), it’s the Goth Xmas, it’s Halloween! And I have already begun scheming about outfits Some of the best/funniest costumes I see each year are based on recent cultural references (who’s going as one of the Avengers, Effie Trinket or Christian Grey this time?) or an extremely poor taste zombie version of a recently dead celebrity. Or this could be a chance to, Mean Girls-style, wear your most revealing costume under the guise of fancy-dress (teenage sex-worker seems to be a popular choice year on year). What are you planning on wearing? (What do you mean you’d not thought about it yet?!)

Personally, I think I’ll be going for something a bit more elegant. At the moment I’m drawing on my love of things anatomical and considering going for something with a skeletal-theme (though not day-of-the-dead sugar skulls, they’ve been done rather to…death).

 I’ve completely fallen in love with this embroidered body-suit from Marchesa. The detail is beautiful and I like how the sheer fabric shows off the body, whilst juxtaposing the bones on the outside, a gilded exo-skeleton. I’d like to wear this under a low cut dress, so the golden ribs would show across the chest (or wear it on it’s own to a rather wilder party!). Kirsten Stewart wore a dress from this collection to the Snow White and the Huntsman premier.

Other beautiful examples of the skeleton in fashion are this amazing leather harness from Zana Bayne (this too would look good over or under something more floaty and feminine. NSFW image here. I’m particularly taken with the detachable arms (complete with ulna and radius) and finger-harnesses.

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