Fake scars, burns, mobility aids: Why disability activists are calling out 'dehumanizing' Halloween costumes

·6-min read
Disability rights advocates say Halloween costumes — such as Freddy Krueger — that appropriate or villify disabilities and visible differences can be harmful. (Photo: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
Disability rights advocates say Halloween costumes — such as Freddy Krueger — that appropriate or villify disabilities and visible differences can be harmful. (Photo: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

As trick-or-treaters prepare to pound the pavement and revelers head to haunted houses, costume parties and other ghoulish gatherings this weekend, the disabled community is sharing a firm reminder: "Disability and disfigurement are not Halloween costumes."

And yet, a quick scan of most costume stores reveals special-effects makeup kits that'll create the illusion of scars and burns; prosthetic hooks and fake limbs; "pimp" canes; "blind referee" costumes complete with walking sticks and dark sunglasses and countless other props and get-ups that make light of or villainize disabilities and visible differences. 

That's not OK, say disability rights activists like Marie Dagenais-Lewis of the Diversability Leadership Collective. Dagenais-Lewis tells Yahoo Life that these costumes "really highlight the ableist society’s blatant disregard for disability" and "perpetuate the notion that disability should be feared."

While she acknowledges that dressing up for the holiday should be "fun," Dagenais-Lewis points out that "it's not fun for the disability community when we are constantly appropriated with negative connotations."

Watch: Confederate Halloween display featuring KKK-like figures prompts community backlash

That's particularly true when a visible difference, such as a scar or burn, is used as a shorthand to identify a character as a villain. In a post addressing problematic Halloween costumes, the U.K. charity Changing Faces noted that "many children and adults can find Halloween difficult when they see their scars, marks or conditions being associated with negative characters and being labeled as 'frightening.'" Similarly, the nonprofit has recently launched the "I Am Not Your Villain" campaign in response to Hollywood productions — including the latest James Bond release, No Time to Die, in which Rami Malek's antagonist has facial scarring — using visible differences in a fearful and negative sense. 

Hollywood has a lot to answer for in terms of stigmatizing disability, Dagenais-Lewis and her Diversability Leadership Collective colleague Katherine Lewis tell Yahoo Life. 

"These costumes feel like harmless fun but they engrain societal microaggressions and longstanding ableist misconceptions about the community," says Lewis. "Not only do these costumes perpetuate the idea that disability and villainy go hand in hand per cinematic portrayal of this connection, but they serve to trivialize the traumas associated with disability. For many of the character subjects of these costumes, disability was acquired by way of a traumatic event. Rather than being a source of empathy and understanding, these costumes turn trauma into entertainment labeled as 'horror.'"

Perhaps the biggest examples of that are three of the most notorious Halloween baddies — and most enduringly popular costume choices — namely, Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger, Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface. While the former is presented as burned, the latter two use a hockey and gruesome human skin masks to conceal their own facial differences, in addition to having mental illness. 

The slasher staples feature in an Instagram post shared earlier this month by British writer Cathy Reay, who has a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia. Inspired by a post on the anti-racist account Everyday Racism calling out costumes that involve cultural appropriation or the mockery of a marginalized group, Reay reached out to the team to help her create a slideshow reminding the public visible differences, mobility aids and the like "are not Halloween costumes either."

Included in the bunch are costumes that mock mental health conditions, including eating disorders, and various disabilities, including her own dwarfism. In her caption, Reay noted how, "every October, without fail, I am the recipient of a massive rise in Oompa Loompa jokes," referencing the factory workers featured in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the films it's spawned. "It's as if people think it's OK to say this kinda thing around Halloween because they're 'just joking.'"

As a child, encountering a costume or affectation that mocked the disabled community — a straitjacket, a fake limp or stammer — Reay felt "strange, without being able to articulate why," she tells Yahoo Life.

"I felt kind of displaced; it wasn't my disability that was being mocked so it didn't feel offensive to me directly, but I felt uncomfortable about how other disabilities were being demonized and what this meant to people who had those disabilities and the disabled community as a whole," she says. "Although I haven't encountered Oompa Loompa costumes that I can remember, one thing that does always happen is there's a rise in the number of people that mock me for my disability, directly shout 'Oompa Loompa' at me and/or mimic the way I walk around Halloween."

And as the mother of two young daughters with achondroplasia, going out trick-or-treating during Halloween is something Reay has tried to avoid due to the "vulnerability we share in being out in public at this time."

Between the limited selection of adaptive costume options and a widespread lack of consideration for trick-or-treaters who use wheelchairs and/or have sensory disorders, Halloween is a holiday from which the disabled are often shut out. 

"I think the attitude from non-disabled people is that we should just kinda fend for ourselves in these 'non-essential' situations —very much a 'if you want to do it, find your own way to do it' approach," Reay says. "It feeds into the narrative that disabled people don't really deserve to enjoy the same things that non-disabled people do... even when the non-disableds are appropriating our disabilities as part of the fun!"

Even calling out costumes that stigmatize disabilities and mental illnesses can be seen as controversial. After Reay shared her post, a handful of commenters pushed back by insisting the looks were harmless.

"I think people can feel threatened when someone is telling them that something that they enjoy doing — which is marketed as 'fun' — isn't OK, as if we have the power to snatch it away from them at any time," she says. "Realistically, we don't; we can only inform, it's up to them if they want to listen. And I hope they will, because it's the only real way we get to change things. The ramifications for affected marginalized people in terms of how dehumanizing and othering it is to have your identity mocked or appropriated at this time should never be taken lightly."

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