Barry Saunders

Saunders: I know tasteless, and this costume fits the bill

A Dorothea Dix psych ward costume at Halloween Alley has been removed from stores at Crabtree Valley Mall and Cary Towne Center after mental health advocates complained.
A Dorothea Dix psych ward costume at Halloween Alley has been removed from stores at Crabtree Valley Mall and Cary Towne Center after mental health advocates complained. Courtesy of National Alliance on Medical Illness Wake County

When it comes to tasteless, I’m the tops.

You doubt that?

Who is the man who, when publishing his own newspaper, wrote the headline “Loose-boweled Bandit Craps Out”?

Still not convinced?

OK, who is the man who, when publishing that same newspaper, paid women to pose in teeny-weeny bikinis for the front page in an effort to entice patrons to part with their quarter?

In both instances, it was your humble correspondent who did those things.

(Scoff if you want, but copies of the late, deeply lamented Richmond County North Star that featured Miss Comfort Cunningham, the Callipygian Countess, on the front page always outsold the ones with the mayor on the front.)

That’s why, when you hear me say the recent gag-inducing, Halloween gag costume purporting to be of an escaped mental hospital patient was tasteless, you are listening to an authority on the genre.

The blood-splattered, white costume with the words “Dorothea Dix Psych Ward” was somebody’s idea of a joke – a can’t-miss conversation starter at the neighborhood Halloween shindig. Susan Brightbill, owner of a Raleigh store that carried the costumes, said in an N&O story, “It’s Halloween. I think people can lighten up a little bit.”

Lighten up over further stigmatizing people who are ill?

Let’s not.

A woman with whom I spoke who spent six months at Dix being treated for schizophrenia said “My stay there was clouded by crisis. I wasn’t thrilled to be there, but they were very professional and wonderful. They got me centered. I love them for that.”

She also said she saw not a single instance of violence while there.

People who decry “political correctness” will contend that the outcry that convinced stores to mothball the costume was much ado about nothing, that the First Amendment guarantees us the right to freedom of speech. It does indeed do that, but it doesn’t guarantee freedom from consequences. For instances, I had the right to write the crappy headline about the burglar who’d leave an odoriferous reminder behind at the scene of his crimes, but the owner of the Food King grocery store had the right to threaten to stop advertising in my paper if such a story ever ran on the same page as his advertisement.

Is there a tendency for some people to express outrage – real or faux – over ultimately innocuous practices?

Sure. Take the people who complain annually that Halloween itself is a pagan ritual, akin to devil-worshipping, and should be abolished. For most people, Halloween means two things: free candy and you get to dress up as a hooker or a viking one night a year.

There are, though, things that deserve to be railed against. Several years ago, after jocularly referring to a mental hospital as the “hoo hoo hotel,” I was inundated with calls from people who found the term offensive: I respected their concern and admitted I was wrong.

Not only is the Dix costume offensive to people with mental illnesses and to the people who love and care for them, but they could also be dangerous – the costumes, not the people, except in rare instances.

In this paranoid culture, you’d have to be crazy to wear the bloody costume while knocking on a door expecting a handful of mini Snickers. More likely, you’d get a buttload of buckshot.

That’s why the only suitable character for an adult trick-or-treater to dress as is Elvis. I, unfortunately, ate too many mini Snickers one year and my lime-green, crushed velvet jumpsuit hasn’t fit since then. I may wear it anyway.

See, I told you: tasteless.