People living in the United States have little to no reason to fear contracting Ebola, a deadly viral illness causing an epidemic in West Africa. Yet on Friday night, some Americans will dress up in hazmat suits akin to what health workers wear when treating an Ebola patient.
And, of course, there’s even a “sexy” version.
Another Halloween, another costume controversy. It’s not the first time a global health threat has inspired costumes and provoked the public. That famous beaked mask you may have seen? It’s a direct steal from the protective garb doctors wore when fighting the bubonic plague in 14th century Venice.
First, let’s consider the Ebola matter. The retailer BrandsOnSale is not the only company selling Ebola costumes, but it recently drew ire for proclaiming “Sexy Ebola Containment Suit” on its website and touting the men’s version as the “most viral costume of the year.”
Many individuals took to Twitter to express their distaste for the idea:
The Ebola epidemic has killed almost 5,000 people and there are currently more than 10,000 cases of the disease, according to the World Health Organization. Before you make up your mind about the ethics of wearing an Ebola Halloween costume, you might want to look at the history of dressing as infectious diseases — and what that costume choice might mean.
Halloween costumes only became mainstream in America about 100 years ago, explains Lesley Bannatyne, author of Halloween, An American Holiday. But for a long time, kids were the only ones to dress up. So there was no 1918 “Influenza Nurse” costume. Just the usual ghosts and witches — and later, vampires, zombies and other creepy creatures. “It wasn’t until adults got involved that we got costumes with satire, edginess or humor,” she says. She believes that the adult costume trend took off in the 1970s. Diseases soon came into the mix.
A 2005 Chicago Tribune article recommended the “bird flu” as a cheap, unique costume idea:
“Really lazy? Just wear the boa around your neck. Then hang a bunch of plucked rubber chickens ($2 each) from your own belt and use the ‘color sticks makeup’ (five colors with free sharpener, $1.99) to draw gross pockmarks on your flesh. For a near-death pallor, turn your flesh sickly with green base makeup ($1.29).”
Style advice columnist Marie Lodi of Rookie Magazine wrote about her experience dressing as “bird flu” for Halloween in 2008: “I bought some fake birds from Michaels, drew Xs over their eyes, poured fake blood on them, and glued them to my costume.”
Lodi said the costume was well-received, but only because avian flu was no longer a real threat. “Ebola is different — people are really scared of it, and it’s all over the news now,” she told NPR in an email.
Then, in 2009, there was the “swine flu” epidemic that inspired the creation of a pig nose and surgical mask Halloween accessory, as well as recommendations for “H1” and “N1” couples costumes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there were between 8,870 and 18,300 H1N1-related deaths between 2009 and 2010.
Yet some diseases are rarely, if ever, mocked during Halloween: HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, for example. Not to mention cancer. Perhaps that’s because the death tolls of avian flu and swine flu pale in comparison to these diseases — AIDS/HIV killed more than 1.6 million people in 2012, and tuberculosis, 1.5 million in 2013. Cancers accounted for 8.2 million deaths in 2012 alone.
Ask some costume historians about the trend of dressing up as diseases and they will tell you it is unprecedented and in bad taste.
“It’s kind of tacky,” said Phyllis Galembo, a fine art portrait photographer and author of books on Halloween, masquerade and ritual ceremony across the world. “People are going to do it, but to me that’s not really great humor. Many people have suffered because of that disease.”
Then again, maybe it’s just a way of satirizing current events. After all, the human tendency to poke fun at deadly diseases is not new. An 1830s print made in England during a cholera outbreak in London jokingly lays out meticulous instructions for a “Cholera Prevention Costume.” Below a drawing of a man dressed in what resembles a puffy snow suit, the text reads: “By exactly following these directions you may be certain that the Cholera … will attack you first.”
And, of course, there is the infamous “plague doctor” mask: a bird-like mask whose beak would have been filled with vinegar and other liquids by 14th century doctors to counteract the smell of death. By the 17th century, Venetians began donning the mask at their annual carnival; versions can still be spotted in crowds at the modern-day festival in Italy. Steampunk renditions are even sold on the handmade crafts website Etsy.
Today’s Ebola hazmat suit is the closest modern-day equivalent to the plague-doctor outfit, says medical historian Mark Honigsbaum, a research fellow at Queen Mary University of London and author of A History of the Great Influenza Pandemics: Death, Panic and Hysteria, 1850-1920. Though the idea of wearing an Ebola-themed costume is shocking, he says that, in a way, it is a “natural” response to confronting disease. “Especially in an areligious period when we don’t have many rituals to allow us to come to terms with these threatening microbial diseases.”
Dressing as the disease for Halloween may be one way individuals express their fears about the epidemic, says Jo. B. Paoletti, a professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in the cultural history of textile and clothing. “It’s a way of trivializing the disease: It’s, ‘We’re going to take big, scary Ebola and make it into a sexy costume for women.’ ”
There may be deeper reasons as well. Bannatyne suggests that the motivation behind an Ebola outfit may be similar to the reason people dress as the Grim Reaper. Perhaps Ebola is the Grim Reaper of the moment, she suggests, or at least for the current news cycle.
“We like to personify things we can’t touch,” says Bannatyne. “To be the darkness, become the enemy, for a night.”
Kate Parkinson-Morgan, an intern at NPR’s social media desk, will be dressing in traditional vampire garb this Halloween. She tweets about gender, culture and social media @kateepm.