Thursday, October 22, 2009

Thoughts on Halloween Costumes of Horror Icons for Kids

There is an associate press piece in todays Daily Progress about Halloween costumes being too gory. It's not on their website as far as I can tell, but like most associated press pieces, it can be found elsewhere.

I can't help but feel on some level this is one of those stories that exists because it's almost Halloween and papers have to write something about Halloween. For one, the article feels like it was written 20 years ago. Its outrage that they're are Jason, Freddy, Michael and Leatherface costumes made me laugh a little as I couldn't help but want to add dates to each film it notes the killers are from.

Freddy - A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Jason - Friday the 13th (1980)

Michael - Halloween (1978)

Leatherface - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Monsters from 25 to 35 years ago are causing issues now? Admittedly all of these characters have or are in the process of being remade for this decade with more gore and less intelligence, but if you look at the Daily Progress version of the article, it comes with an example of an accursed Michael costume. Clean white mask... yep, that's not Rob Zombie's redneck Michael from the remake. These kinds of costumes have been around for decades. I went as Jason and Freddy several times as a kid, once even saving up to buy a prosthetic mask for Freddy's face which I had hand painted all the burns onto, making sure to get the right balance of yellow to show how the wounds were puss'ing with infection (yum!). So, if they want to talk about this like it was a new problem (if it's even a problem at all) they should probably talk about contemporary horror costumes. Have a parent upset about a Jigsaw doll costume, or a Hostel gimp Mask for kids. I couldn't even find a Ghostface costume from the Scream trilogy (which, yes, I went as, but I was probably about 15 or 16 by then). The fact that I couldn't find a kids Repo-man or Jigsaw doll costume negates the fact that horror movies have become much more realistically gory and arguably more sadistic (torture porn isn't as new as some would think, but the slasher icons of the 70s and 80s were never as messed up as the things recent killers have been up to). It's not like they can say the stakes have been drastically raised by having new even more perverse killers become childhood heroes. So again, nothing new under the sun.

Still, lets examine the "gore." If you zoom in on the above picture of Micheal Myers from the Zooster site, you will notice that at least there is a bit of gore on the fake knife. The linked version of the article above also has a picture of an Axe murder that has no gore whatsoever, making the article extra silly. Perhaps the most challenging of these is Leatherface, who, like Norman Bates of Psycho and Buffalo Bill of The Silence of the Lambs, was inspired by Ed Gein. As such the leather of his mask and apron is human skin. Zooster is pretty conservative in their handling of this fairly extreme horror icon, compared to Costume World which even I find a tad tasteless with its extra face and fingers on the apron and the bit in the description saying to "stalk your victims."

Admittedly, none of these characters are exactly role-models for kids. Freddy's back-story is that he was a child murder (and to varying degrees it has been implied and in some sequels expressed that he was pedophile) that was burned alive by vengeful parents, who now haunts their children's dreams, killing them in his sleep. Leatherface, as mentioned before liked to wear people, and is the mentally challenged youngest member of a family of backwoods cannibals. Jason has always been a bit more sympathetic as the deformed child left to drown by careless camp consolers who would rather have sex than carry out their responsibilities. It's hard not to feel for the guy when he sees his mother (who went on a killing spree, thinking he was dead) get decapitated. Then there is Michael, who kills his sister for no clear reason when he was a child, only to grow up into a a force of "pure evil." These characters are vicious perverse killers, and in that respect the degree of gore present with their costumes is almost irrelevant compared to the implied gore of simply who they are. If you dress up as Hitler, you don't need to walk around with a handful of gold teeth for people to get the idea.

However, implied gore does require you get the implication. This is the ultimate irony to be found in the article pointing out that "Costume sizes can run so small that many wearers might be too young to have seen the slasher movies under film industry guidelines." I'm pretty sure I'd never seen Dracula (any version) the first time I went as the Count. I honestly can't recall If I had seen Friday the 13th before the first time I donned a hockey mask. By the early 90s, these characters were so ingrained in pop culture, it didn't matter. They were on The Simpsons, they were told about by friends at campfires. Jason and Freddy had replaced 'The Hook Man' and 'The Boogey Man.' Heck, Michael Myers is The Boogey Man! The reason Freddy is such an immortal character has virtually nothing to do with the movies. People reading this probably have grandparents that know who Freddy and Jason are, and not the kind of cool kind of grandparents that know own box sets of both franchises. The Freddy movies are silly, but it is the idea of Freddy that sticks. He goes after kids in their nightmares, making them real. What can be more scary for a little kid than that? Nightmares are where all the monsters we fear reside, and our only comfort is that we know they aren't real, but then comes Freddy saying, 'Oh yes they are!'

That was the beauty of Halloween for me as a kid really. You got to dress up as boogey men. You got to make them silly and have fun with it. Like WWF Wrestling, we all knew it was fake. We would make our costumes together, save up or beg our parents to get stuff like fake blood and plastic knives, and then we would see each others costumes and marvel at the person who figured out that Elmer's glue makes great fake skin to peel off your arm. It was fun to get grossed out and then see how people pulled off the illusion. That really what it's all about, the old sawing the girl in half trick.

Still, times have changed. I grew up with shows like Movie Magic, with Stan Winston, Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero as heroes, and I wasn't even a subscriber to Fangoria! Perhaps now kids aren't as aware of effects as I was.

It's not so much that I disagree that some of this stuff is a little out of hand as I'm troubled by the kind of argument people like Joel Schwartzberg shape in going after companies like Zooster and Costume World: the simple trend of gory costumes becomes the problem. I agree that targeting kids below the age of 6 is pretty crazy for some of this stuff, but when in his piece for the Huffinington Post he exclaims "Whatever happened to pirates and hobos?" I have to raise an eyebrow.

If there is any real fear that these characters influence kids, that costumes are influential, then are pirates - people who murder, rape, drink a lot, disregard authority and happen to still exist - really be that much better? Should we encourage kids to be bums? A lot of the classic horror icons aren't that much better really, but figures like Dracula have been so ingrained into the iconography of Halloween that we forget that the original Count offers his three wives an infant to tear limb from limb (and they do!) in the novel. Bela Lugosi and Karloff may be the faces we remember, but lets not forget Lugosi was drug addict, and when the kids excitedly run to IMDB and Netflix in hopes of finding afilm with the two titans working together, the first two collaborations of Karloff and Lugosi were The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935), the two films that established the torture horror film genre in America. You know... for kids!

There are plenty of costumes we take for granted, are Micheal and Freddy and Jason, really that dangerous? At this point aren't they really just skeletons, ghosts and vampires. Don't many kids just want to be Freddy because the costume looks cool, and have a little bit of that appeal as something more grown up?

Perhaps I have been unfair to Schwartzberg's argument. Isn't his real concern that kids are getting desensitized to "brutal violence?" In response to that I can say from personal experience that little of that was evident from my growing up. As many horror films as I saw, the sight of real blood never ceased to affect me. When someone was injured and bleeding it was always very upsetting to me because it was real and I understood that. Once when I was eight or so, I visited my grandmother in the hospital and her roommate had lost his legs. It was probably the first time I'd seen a real amputee and it was almost traumatic. The idea that that man would never walk again with his legs, never wiggle his toes or do all the things I take for granted was completely processed and when we were back in the car I cried. Blood and corn syrup are not the same thing. Kids get that.

Ultimately I think it's up to parents to decide what is best for their kids and I'm tempted to take something of a George Carlin mentality here. If your kid is stupid and really can't make those connections between reality and fantasy, don't let them watch horror movies or run around with fake knives or pirate swords... don't let them dress up like ninja assassins or bandits or in vigilante superhero costumes or anything else that you wouldn't want them to want to do for real or grow up to be just like. If Halloween is not your thing for religious reasons, or ethical ones, fine. In all seriousness, I have nothing against parents choosing not to expose their kids to horror. I actually have found myself on several occasions lately being utterly outraged at the theater to find other people in the audience have brought their kids to horror movies like Hostel II and stuff. I do have limits, and taking a five year old to see torture horror is sick and repulsive to me. Even the last Rambo was a bit much in my opinion for really young minors to see. If you can't articulate complex sentences you probably shouldn't be watching something so hard that it makes me wish the R rating was cut in half and made into two ratings (since no-one will just call some things NC-17 no matter how much they clearly are).

Honestly, my fiancee works in a children theater that is going to have a show on Halloween night, and if I go in costume it won't be anything really scary if even ghoulish at all. I'm not inconsiderate. Then again, I'm also a broad shouldered 24-year-old that stands over 6-feet-tall and knows how to do gore; I'm not a six year old going 'boo' in a hockey mask with some red paint on the end of a plastic knife. Let little kids have fun, especially if they have a chance to tricker treat outside. It's fun scaring one another. Kids scream, and then they laugh. I do understand about some of this super young targeting being outlandish. I'm not fond of exploiting kids, and as I've repeatedly noted, I think with the occasional store bought aid, costumes should generally be made not bought pre-assembled. I'm a big fan of making your own costumes, especially when gore is involved as it allows you to connect with that sawing in half aspect, that magician making something not real look real bit. Overall, lets not forget what Halloween is when we complain that it's getting a little macabre. It's a celebration of life through celebrating death. It's about that transitory stage where we learn to joyously put away are boogey men. Life can be brutal and vicious. Kids are growing up in a world where people around them are maimed and mutilated in wars. The very paper I first read this article in had for cover stories a missing student case and a woman confessing to killing and throwing her boyfriend's body down a well. The world is pretty scary, and there are many parental philosophies for how to help kids deal with the real and imaginary things that if we think about too much can leave us overwhelmed with dread. One philosophy we can see in variation from Halloween's roots to The Day of the Dead and elsewhere in the world is to celebrate death. On Halloween we can dress up like the things we fear and decide that we are going to still respect them, but stop dreading them. It's not for everyone, and it's not what motivates everyone that gores up (some just like getting sticky), but it's the reason I smile more often than feel outrage at the sight of a kid wearing a Freddy glove, with a bucket of candy, saying, "One, two, Freddy's coming for you..." to the annoyance of his sister.


OpenID phyzome said...

An excellent post. Much better analysis than I see in the papers these days...

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Trish said...


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