A friend of mine posted some pictures of himself from Halloween on Facebook this morning. This person tends to be larger than life, good-looking and full of swagger, which works for him as his full-time job is in the arts. This friend’s posts sometimes cross a line, pushing boundaries and unapologetically sharing his brash, funny, and/or unsettling commentary with the world. Such is the game of FB.
The Halloween pics, however, gave me pause for a reason that went beyond my normal “he’s at it again!” response. My friend had dressed up as an Ebola victim (examples of costumes with this theme can be found here); any uncertainty about this was clarified by a sign dangling around his neck that said, “EBOLA.” I was stunned; how could my friend think this was funny? The comments below his post seemed for the most part appreciative, though a couple of them made vague protest, as in, “Too soon.” Too soon is right, I agreed.
The image and the idea behind stuck in my mind all day. “What a luxury we in America enjoy,” I thought, “in being able to take the suffering of others and make it the next trendy Halloween costume!” There have been almost 5,000 people who have died of the disease in Africa, which continues to rage across the continent; concerns abound as to whether the virus will spread to major cities in developing countries like India, China, or parts of the Middle East and even come (again) to the well-protected U.S. population. Yet we seem to think of it as the next big thing…why?
Could be that we’ve become both more blood-comfortable and more callous, what with the American (and perhaps international) preoccupation with evil characters, torture, and violence on television as shows like American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, Criminal Minds, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, and others. If you look at the images from the New York City Halloween parade you see an awful lot of zombies, chainsaw-wielding clowns, bloody nurses, and of course, Ebola sufferers and medics in hazmat suits. The Thriller video was reenacted, and aliens bounced along with skeletons on the thronged streets.
It occurred to me to consider the possibility that the folks dressing up so gorily and irreverently might be invoking the sort of carnivalesque way of taking the widespread suffering and fear in the world today of the threat of an Ebola-centered pandemic and turning it on its head, so to speak. Carnival, an ancient pre-Christian tradition that historically became associated with raucous, meat-laden feasts and celebrations in the days leading up to Lent, represented a freeing of the common mind from the yoke of work, oppression, and limits of human society; it is still celebrated in much of Latin America as well as Africa, Asia, and Europe. The wearing of Ebola-themes costumes might be a way, thus, to take the dark, uncertain boundaries of human existence and push them back, a struggle against our powerlessness in the face of blood, pain, and death which thousands face every day and which we observe, anxiously, in the news.
Yet there’s something tasteless in that explanation, just as there is in the comment made by one of the parade goers in New York, who stated that she made her costume “to raise awareness” about Ebola. (She really did say that.) I would have more respect for this person had she simply said, “I thought it would look cool, and I want to be on-trend.” At least that would have been honest.
But maybe people really don’t fully know the reason why they’ve picked up bloody chunks to pretend to munch on, or carried chainsaws and hatchets as a must-have for their serial killer costumes, or donned a hazmat suit and demarcated perimeter which you can’t cross because – you guessed it – they, or at least the character they are playing, have Ebola. Maybe this is my fundamental problem with the whole thing: We in safe, rich America are playing at death, at torture, at loss of life, dignity, safety, and self. The people of Liberia, of Guinea, of Sierra Leone do not have such a choice. The Kurds in Turkey and Syria, Sunni tribesmen in Iraq, Yazidi girls and women cannot but suffer for real at the hands of ISIS militants. My friend may think he’s just a man of the times, and I guess I’m inclined to agree. But it makes me ashamed to think that this is the way some of us in America show it.