Halloween: Scary monsters, scars and me

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Every year it seems the run up to Halloween gets longer, the costumes more extravagant and scarier, the special effects and makeup even more vivid and grotesque.

In the search for realism – and no doubt helped by the growing interest in the horror genre in the cinema and on TV (The Walking Dead, for example) – people are now adding ‘scars’ to complement their outlandish costumes. Not just nice neat ones, but increasingly garish and bloodied ones.

Ah, you think, but it’s all harmless fun. I hate to be a spoilsport, but I find it deeply offensive, hurtful, degrading and disrespectful of me as someone who has lived in the shadow of facial disfigurement. I have spent decades fighting an often lonely campaign to rid myself of the hurt, shame and humiliation of trying to drag myself through each day to lead a ‘normal’ life only to find Halloween making fun of scarred people.

One of the realistic special effects for scars. But it can be removed. The facially disfigured don't have that option.
One of the realistic special effects for scars. But it can be removed. The facially disfigured don’t have that option.
You can call me silly and moralistic, denying children especially the fun of dressing up in ghoulish costumes and makeup, their faces festooned with ‘scars’, all for a bit of a laugh when they go trick or treating. Yes, they look frightful and scary and it may seem harmless. But it also perpetuates myths about the facially disfigured and diminishes me – and those of us who have facial scars. It reinforces stereotypes that the facially disfigured are evil and to be feared, when in reality we spend our days trying to be accepted by society.

What does it say about our values today that we seek to stigmatise those whose faces don’t conform to the norm? How can we hope to educate people not to stare at, abuse or discriminate against those whose lives are challenged enough coping with facial disfigurement?

It’s all harmless fun, you might say. I used to think that too one time. As a small boy I would go out with my friends on Halloween hoping to pick up an apple or some nuts – very rarely did we get anything else in those days – as we made our way around the neighbourhood in the dark. One of us had a sheet to throw over his head, and the fortunate one or two might have a mask, so we could try and scare people when they opened the door. When one of my friends suggested I didn’t need a mask because my face would be scary enough, I recoiled in embarrassment and shame. I had known my face was different to other kids, but the thought that it could terrify other people shocked and really deflated me, although I tried to keep a lid on my emotions.

Excuse me if I didn’t find the tweet below funny. It’s by Adam Cozens, a comedian and comedy writer. He tweeted this back in 2011 so I’m not sure if he’s still rolling around laughing at it:

@Adam_Cozens: People who have to spend their lives walking around with terrible burn scars and birth defects, must really love the freedom of Halloween

Eh, no we don’t, Adam. That comment isn’t a tiny bit funny. As we in Ireland turn Halloween into a celebration of the macabre the idea that those of us with a facial differences could more easily assimilate and celebrate our ‘differences’ with our ‘newly-scarred’ friends borders on the ridiculous.

I passed through Cork City centre last Halloween night – thankfully in a car. You would think the city had been taken over by the Walking Dead, a zombie land of ghoulish creatures – younger people, I hasten to add – all resplendent in horror costumes and bloodied scars, chasing each other around the streets or between traffic. The idea that I would have been comfortable in that crowd is derisory.

For many of those with a facial difference it’s a very difficult existence. Just leaving home can lead to anxiety attacks; being in crowds can be intimidating; seeking employment and going through the process of interviews can be frightening. So the belief that people donning fake scars is somehow good for us and amusing – well, excuse me if I find that a less than compelling argument.

You see, here’s the thing: you can wash off or remove your scar makeup and special effects. I can’t. My scars stay with me every day 24/7. Think about that when you put on your disposable Halloween scars this year.

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