There was a time when the safety tips you heard around Halloween were meant to keep you from eating razor blade-stuffed apples or getting jumped while trick-or-treating. But those quaint little concerns have given way to entirely new terrors in the age of social media and oversharing. Now if there’s any one warning you need to heed before heading out to celebrate Halloween, it’s this: be careful of the costume you’re wearing. It would be easy to say simply, “Don’t dress like an asshole,” but there are a few problems with a statement like that.
First of all, humor is subjective, so if you’re wearing a costume that’s supposed to push the envelope of good taste in the name of getting a laugh, it’s tough to tell what’s truly over-the-line and what isn’t (and no, the indignation of the easily offended isn’t necessarily a good barometer). Second, it’s long been a Halloween tradition to reach for the most timely reference when trying to come up with a morbidly inappropriate costume, which means that at every Halloween event every Halloween you’re bound to find at least a few people dressed as whichever celebrity died that year or whoever wound up in the news most recently for dubious reasons. To this day I’m convinced that the real reason women starting dressing like witches is that it was the big gag costume the Halloween after the Salem witch trials and the idea just stuck.
The problem is that whatever you’re wearing for Halloween these days — tactful, tasteless or anything between — there’s a damn good chance it’s going to be seen by far more people than the small crowd at your office party. Last year a 22-year-old Michigan woman named Alicia Lynch saw her life torn in two when the picture she’d tweeted of herself dressed as a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing went viral. An image that was meant for maybe a couple hundred followers was circulated to millions and in the resulting maelstrom Lynch received death threats (as is tradition on Twitter), was fired from her job and ultimately had to go into hiding. All of this because she’d worn a costume that people thought was offensive.
But that was last year, a year that also saw dozens upon dozens of idiots donning blackface and dressing up as Trayvon Martin. This year, in the tradition of the ill-advised Trayvon costume, the Halloween plague that seems to have descended upon our culture involves white people dressing as disgraced NFL star and former boyfriend-of-the-year Ray Rice.
I’m not going to get into a debate about whether a Ray Rice costume is innately despicable, given that it’s up to each person what he or she finds funny and Halloween is by its very nature the one day of the year in which the reins are loosed on polite society. You want to be that transgressive and aren’t worried about potential blowback, have at it. But know that not only are you pretending to be a domestic abuser but if you happen to be a white guy — or girl — who slaps on blackface to try to pull off a Ray or Janay Rice costume, you’re gonna be called out for being a racist. And you’re gonna deserve it.
That’s kind of what I’m getting at here: If you cross a line now, particularly if you revel in that line-crossing by posting a picture online, there’s a good chance your face and Twitter screen-name will wind up not only scattered to the farthest reaches of the internet but that lengthy blog posts and think-pieces will call you out personally and Keith Olbermann will officially dub you one of the worst people in the world.
I’ve said before that I don’t have an issue with tasteless Halloween costumes. While blackface is racist and wrong — and certainly dressing your child up as, say, a batterer is pretty indefensible — no one should have to worry that if they offend someone with their costume that person will threaten their life and basically destroy them. That’s a ridiculously disproportionate response. But by this point I’ve kind of given up and have just come to accept that nothing can be done to stop the outrage machine on social media once it gets wound up. In other words, if you want to dress as Ray Rice for Halloween and decide to post a smiling photo of yourself in your full get-up on Twitter or Instagram, you need to expect what the response will probably be. Not saying you can’t wear a really tasteless gag costume; just saying that if you put it up online you should remember that it’s going out everywhere.
You’re going to get called on it. And you probably deserve it — if for no other reason than being that stupid.
RELATED: Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia pulled headless figures from its Halloween attraction after people complained that it was insensitive because something something ISIS. You can read about that here. Also, meet some cosplayers for whom every day is Halloween. Do that here.