According to the Times, some schools are now banning kids from wearing Halloween costumes that are "too scary - or offensive, gross or saddening." So what's left?
As the Times's Jennifer Steinhauer points out, fake guns and swords have long been forbidden at school, and although she depicts mask bans as part of a new crackdown, my brother and I were forbidden from covering our faces back in the nineties. What is new is an insistence on "positive costumes" rather than the traditional ghosts, vampires, zombies, and ax murderers. A school in Plainfield, Ill. encourages "costumes depicting animals and food (preferably carrots or pumpkins)" — the "carrots or pumpkins" preference implies that even dressing as junk food may be beyond the pale. Plainfield district spokesman Tom Hernandez says, "Several years ago, there was some push back in our community. Some people thought Halloween was a Satanic ritual." Perhaps embarrassed to have put himself in the same camp as Harry Potter haters, he backtracks: "Well, let's not say Satanic - let's say they were not comfortable with what it represents." So now, Halloween in Plainfield will represent ... salad.
Riverside Drive Elementary in LA's San Fernando Valley issued a whole memo about Halloween costumes, stipulating the following:
¶They should not depict gangs or horror characters, or be scary.
¶Masks are allowed only during the parade.
¶Costumes may not demean any race, religion, nationality, handicapped condition or gender.
¶No fake fingernails.
¶No weapons, even fake ones.
¶Shoes must be worn.
All of this really sounds pretty reasonable, except for the "no scary costumes" part. It's a little disturbing that schools now feel the need to protect children from fake blood and zombie makeup. But it's not exactly a surprise. I went to public school in the San Fernando Valley, and while I had a largely good experience, I can attest that there's nothing those schools love more than banning shit. I remember not just the mask ban, but also the yo-yo ban, the pog ban, the D&D ban, and the ban on "white socks pulled up to the knees and worn with cutoffs" (I think this was thought to be gang attire, but I never saw anyone wearing it, and the fact that it had to be recited aloud to us in homeroom every day for four years was nothing short of surreal). In some cases, these bans were meant to keep us physically safe. In others, they were meant to reduce conflict or status-jockeying (this never works, as a banned yo-yo is an even bigger status symbol than a legal one). And in others still, they seemed conceived in concert with overprotective parents as a way of keeping our little lives free of any untoward influence of any kind. The ban on scary costumes seems to fall into the last category.
According to Steinhauer, the LA Unified School District has long discouraged sexy costumes, such as French maids, and I find this somewhat easier to support. I get not wanting to initiate kids into the sexual-industrial complex before they're old enough to do their own face paint. But Halloween is supposed to be scary, and while I understand shielding the young and sensitive from horror movies, I doubt many children are going to be permanently scarred by seeing, say, a fake scar. And I find truly scary costumes a welcome antidote to the recent dominance of the sexy.
A few years ago, my mom told me about her favorite trick-or-treater — a fairy princess with a pink dress and an oozing bullet hole smack in the middle of her forehead. Was it in poor taste? Kind of. Did it glorify violence? I guess. But the whole point of Halloween is to acknowledge that death and gore and fear are part of human existence, and to celebrate them rather than fleeing them. Of course, fleeing and denying death (and aging, and disease, and anything else "gross") is exactly what American culture does every other day of the year, so perhaps the fact that we're now forcing our kids to dress up as carrots should come as no surprise. I can sense a backlash already, though: banning "horror characters" will just force kids to find more creative ways to be terrifying. Steinhauer cites one LA kid who's going as a box of Wheaties, which is so wholesome it's actually kind of scary.