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How outrage replaced fear as the point of Halloween

A lithograph from 1892 offering a "fanciful representation" of the Salem witch trials (Wikimedia)

It happens every year with a predictability that is both reassuring and frustrating. Someone wears a Halloween costume—or sells a Halloween costume—that blurs the line between “provocative” and “offensive.” He went as Caitlyn Jenner. She went as Sexy Ebola. How dare he. How could she. Word of that costume spreads among media both social and traditional. Indignation ensues. The indignation escalates to outrage. The outrage spreads. Those most Halloweeny of things—pitchforks—come out.

Recent participants in the gripe cycle of All Hallows Eve have included:

And, of course, there are many more. So many more. The phenomenon—inevitable idiocy, inevitable indignation—has gotten so widespread that Gawker, this year, identified a subholiday of the eve of the hallows: “Racist Halloween.” The festivities, which have long celebrated the outrageous, now also celebrate, simply, outrage.

Halloween used to revolve around, and revel in, familiarized fear—as the night before All Souls’ Day, it was historically celebrated as a time of communion between the living and the dead. (In some incarnations, the historian Ronald Hutton notes, it was “a night upon which supernatural beings were said to be abroad and could be imitated or warded off by human wanderers.”) The holiday’s modern marketing, definitely, carries on the assumption that the day itself, and the days leading up to it, are primarily about the assorted delights of the spookyscary: all those FrightFests, haunted houses, horror marathons on Bravo, etc. etc.

But Halloween, as actually practiced and celebrated—largely, through the costumes people don in its honor—is no longer primarily about fear. Instead, it’s primarily about fun. Spectacle long ago replaced scariness as the core driver of Halloween festivities among both kids and adults, aided by the Costume Industrial Complex and the assorted quirks of the “one night stand” and the “Freudian slip” and the “cereal killer,” and also of the “9 Clever Costumes for Punny Procrastinators” and the “21 Insanely Clever Costume Ideas for You and Your Friends” and the “29 Halloween Costumes That Will Make You Nostalgic” and the “67 Awesome Halloween Costume Ideas.”

Which is also to say the obvious: that Halloween, like pretty much every holiday out there, has become heavily commercialized. In the States, in the 1930s, the theatrical-costume maker Ben Cooper, his business suffering in the Great Depression, struck a deal with the Walt Disney Company to produce costumes based on Disney characters. His company went on to be-costume superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman in the ’60s and characters from Star Trek and Star Wars in the ’70s. Costumes, under Cooper’s influence, not only became mass-produced, but they also expanded beyond the traditional ghost-and-goblin fare. Soon, candy-beggars on Halloween night included TV characters, movie stars, and politicians. Monsters would still be in the mix, definitely, but they would no longer be in the majority.

And as media got increasingly into the Halloween game—Roseanne’s elaborate costumes, Modern Family’s crazy haunted house, Matt Lauer’s many appearances in drag on The Today Show, etc.—everyday people themselves began emphasizing over-the-top creativity in their cosplay. Punny costumes (“Lorde of the rings,” etc.) became popular. So did extremely elaborate ones, rented at high hourly and daily rates from professional outfitters. And the rise of image-oriented social media, of course, has put even more of a premium on cleverness, with the logic of the “best costume” competition ported into everyday Halloweening. People dress up for the fun of it; they also, often, do it for the ‘gram.

All of which, on the one hand, has made Halloween really awesome! Who among us will not giggle at a Donald Trumpkin displayed on a porch this weekend, or at the many clever incarnations of “Netflix and Chill” that will be, inevitably, tricking and treating? The kooky is often much more delightful than the spooky. (One of the many jokes in “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” Tracy Jordan’s novelty Halloween video, is how extremely unfrightening all its “spookyscariness” actually is.)

What all the revelry also means, though, is that Halloween, in its low-key competition for creativity, has put a new premium on the pushing of boundaries. If everyone is keeping up with the Indiana Joneses, people will find ways to push that competition to extremes. Costumes, by their nature, are about thwarting social norms (the word stems from the Latin consuetudinem, or “custom, habit, usage”); when they collide with the current culture’s emphasis on creativity, however, they transform Halloween from a holiday into an excuse. For experimentation, for crossing lines, for dabbling with otherness. Our forebears may have spent All Hallows’ Eve fighting against goblins and ghosts; we, for our part, battle our Ids.

Thus, all the Sexy Librarians. And all the displays of offensive cultural appropriation. Racist Halloween can be understood in one way as an extreme form of Halloween’s boundary-pushing. White teen-as-Nicki and Kelly Osbourne as Rachel Dolezal and Heidi Klum as Kali and Julianne Hough as Crazy Eyes and all the other #toomuches and #toosoons and #waitseriouslys and #howdaretheys … these are both terribly tasteless and terribly telling. As the marketing copy for the “Pashtun Papa” getup reads, revealingly: “Nothing is sacred this Halloween. Shock your friends with this Islamic costume.”

Shock, indeed. Which also means that an inevitable aspect of Racist Halloween is the inevitable Backlash Against Racist Halloween. “Call Me Caitlyn” and “Pashtun Papa” and Osbourne and Klum and Hough and all the other dresser-uppers will be, in short order, dressed down—on CNN and The Huffington Post and Mashable and TMZ, not to mention on Twitter and Facebook. The teenager who Minajed herself may have her college applications sabotaged. The teacher who dressed up as Kanye could lose his job. And the outrage comes at a simmer, too, as well as a boil. Earlier this week, ABC informed its readers: “Dad Outraged at ‘Cute’ Halloween Costumes for Girls; Creates #MoreThanCute Campaign.”

The Internet has brought, among so much else, a kind of enforced empathy: We have a new—unprecedented—access to each other, and that can be wonderful and jarring, often in equal measure. Halloween is in some sense a proving ground for the new insight we’re gaining into the lives, and the minds, of others. People have long done dumb things; the difference is that, now, everyone else can find out about those dumb things. The dumbness is shareable, and commentable. Mistakes can, at the click of an “upload” button, be turned into media.

And outrage, too, can be viral, turning the playful Boo!s of Halloween past into the scornful boooos of Halloween present. It can be used to transform even that most seemingly playful of things—the costume—into a political message. (As Wholesale Halloween Costumes declares of its Israeli Soldier Costume for Boys, “Defend your Jewish heritage proudly by wearing the Israeli Soldier Boy’s Costume!”) And it can turn Halloween into yet another battlefield of the culture wars. It used to be that the things that inspired fear in people, in All Hallows’ Eves long ago, were ghosts and ghouls, undead monsters visiting, unwelcome, from the beyond. We used to be afraid of the supernatural. And while we have largely shed our superstitions, we haven’t quite shed our fear. We’re just directing it, at this point, toward the most super, and the most natural, thing of all: other people.