‘Psycho Ward’ Costume

In a line up of Halloween costumes you’d expect to see the same old clichés. Beside the slutty fairies, superheroes, ghosts and zombies, what if in the weeks leading up to Halloween you see a ‘Psycho Ward’ or ‘Mental Patient’ costume? Would you allow the product to pass as a playful gimmick or an insensitive extortion of a maltreated subsection of society?

This article comes after news broke this week that mega retailers Amazon, ASDA and Tesco released these exact costumes for sale. They depict mental health patients in straightjackets and jumpsuits brandishing weapons. Soon after, people flocked to social media outlets to voice their opinions on the situation: “idiotic w***ers”, “you can tell there are idiots in charge when that passes through production”, “BOYCOTT ASDA!”

It was not just indignant shoppers who protested against the costumes, the mental health charity Mind tweeted: “ASDA’s mental health patient costume reinforces the myth that those with mental illness are all violent”. Bowing down to the torrent of condemnation, ASDA and Tesco soon withdrew these products, with an apology and a sizable donation to Mind – a transparent gesture even Malcolm Tucker would cringe at.

It is undeniable that the retailers’ crass marketing of the product was a hideously obtuse, sweeping generalization of mental illness; yet they are only guilty of exhibiting a perception of psychiatric disorders influenced by the dramatic representation of the illness in our media. Arguably, people’s affronted attitude towards the costumes stem from the idea of making light of the illness all in the name of amusement on Halloween night. Nonetheless, how is it any different from curling up on the sofa on a Friday night, a bowl of popcorn in hand, sniggering at Christian Bale launching an axe into Jared Leto’s forehead in American Psycho?

The genre of psychological horror is a category often drawn upon in literature and film, with the infamous antagonist characters Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates frequently revamped in glossy American remakes. So why exactly have the costumes infuriated so many people whilst films dramatizing killers with mental illnesses are ravenously applauded by critics? Both appear to stigmatize people with mental health issues as “violent”.

Tesco’s ‘Psycho Ward’ costume is notably reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter’s attire in 1991 film Silence of the Lambs. One cannot help but wonder if Tesco had not attempted to bypass copyright laws and branded the costume as homage to the film, whether it would have been met with such outrage.

Take what you will from this scandal, but what I found to be compelling was the realization that if these costumes were released 10 years earlier, in the heyday of psychological horror films, few people would have batted an eyelid. But in the age of social media and the power of the hashtag, it is fascinating to see how many people’s attitudes have now changed towards mental illnesses.