How to Halloween in College without being Offensively Scary

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Halloween has been my favorite holiday ever since the vge of one when my mom dressed me up as a pumpkin. When I came to college, my excitement about Halloween only grew. Sure, trekking door-to-door screaming “trick-or-treat” in strangers’ faces shaking a pillowcase open wide for candy was no longer socially acceptable, but Halloween now means at least three days of partying opening your mouth wide open for a beer funnel. Even the frats decorate their houses for the occasion. That’s a tradeoff I’d make any October.

Unfortunately, Halloween has become an ideological warzone, especially on college campuses. I guess you didn’t think you were hurting anyone with your sexy pirate costume, did you? Well, that costume is offensive to local pirate communities because you don’t understand their swashbuckling culture. Just kidding, that’s ridiculous. But seriously, some costumes can really hurt, offend, appropriate and alienate people. So where’s the line? What’s considered okay? When does funny morph into mockery? When does racy become race-based objectification?

Scrolling through Facebook in October provides endless examples of the arguments hurled by those on both sides of the issue. In one camp, we have the naysayers—those who ignore the damage that offensive costumes can inflict on the groups they depict. These folks claim our generation is one of pansy, narcissistic liberals. They’re nostalgic for the 1950s and the “real America” (even if they were never alive to see it). On the other end of the spectrum stand the constantly offended who seemingly scour the internet through thick-rimmed glasses (or are wire rims now the thing?) for examples of acts of intolerance and indifference that they’re way too cultured and sensitive to perpetrate.

Penn State Communications Professor Jose Aviles said he’s not confident that there is a respectful way to dress like a culture that isn’t your own. “I think the biggest problem that happens with Halloween is when people choose costumes that represent particular cultures and various races, and they don’t do them justice. They come off as a caricature. The costumes that we see are sexy costumes or humorous costumes, and we give somebody the opportunity to represent another group in such a way that it comes off as not valuing that group,” Aviles said. He added that this dehumanizes the group in question and is just plain disrespectful. Preach it Aviles.

I don’t think I have to waste time detailing why a Native American costume may offend folks if you’re not actually Native American, a moral crime I cringe to say I committed in freshman year of high school before cultural appropriation was a thing I knew existed. But have you ever considered the underlying issues with a provocative schoolgirl costume? Or a sexy baby costume? Wearing costumes like these, we sexualize children and normalize a sense of attraction toward them—specifically when it comes to young girls. Before reading into Halloween costumes in such terms, these outfits might seem reasonable at first glance. Conversely, the idea of a college-aged man dressing as a schoolboy with the intention of looking sexy sounds unhinged and pedophilic, which it is. Aviles said the female versions of such costumes further objectify women. “They instill this idea that women are there for a man’s pleasure, which is pretty common across the idea of sexy costumes, but then they instill this idea that women are there for a man’s pleasure from birth, which is really gross,” Aviles said.

So how do we navigate a holiday that should be lighthearted, but now serves as an allegory for the race and sex-based tensions on our college campuses and in our country? I doubt very many don their Halloween costumes with the intention of offending and trivializing people and issues they don’t recognize. We all came out to have a good time, and we’re feeling really attacked right now. I say let’s make Halloween great again.

“The best thing is to abstain from something if you don’t think it is respectful toward a particular group…If you have doubt in your mind about how this costume would be received in front of a group of people of whatever group you’re trying to represent, then you shouldn’t be wearing that costume. If you have to ask yourself a question about it, ask yourself that question,” Aviles said.

Before deciding to dress up like a sexy Girl Scout, ask yourself if you really think you should be promoting the idea that young girls (who sell legendary cookies in this case) are objects of lust. Before going to Joanne’s Fabrics to buy a nice “Asian” print to make your own kimono for your geisha costume, ask yourself if you’d stand in front of a real geisha and feel no shame. And don’t say it doesn’t matter because you won’t see a member of the group you’re swagger-jacking. That’s not the point. Plus, you never really know. It may be impossible not to offend anyone during Halloween when you’re dressing up as someone you’re not, but it is possible to lessen the damage your choices cause.

Sara is a senior broadcast journalism major at Penn State. She loves traveling, watching cooking videos, and puppies.

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