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This article examines the relationship between organizational ethics, the uncanny and the annual celebration of Halloween. We begin by exploring the traditional and contemporary organizational function of Halloween as 'tension-management ritual' (Etzioni, 2000) through which collective fears, anxieties, and fantasies are played out and given material expression. Combining the uncanny with the folkloric concept of ostension we then examine an incident in which UK supermarket retailers made national news headlines for selling offensive Halloween costumes depicting 'escaped mental patients'. Rather than treating this incident as a problem of moral hygiene-in which products are removed, apologies made, and lessons learned-we consider the value of Halloween as a unique and disruptive ethical encounter with the uncanny Other. Looking beyond its commercial appeal and controversy, we reflect on the creative, generous, and disruptive potential of Halloween as both tension-management ritual and unique organizational space of hospitality through which to receive and embrace alterity and so discover the homely within the unheimlich.
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Journal of Business Ethics (2020) 161:103–114
Halloween, Organization, andtheEthics ofUncanny Celebration
SimonKelly1 · KathleenRiach2
Received: 20 July 2017 / Accepted: 8 June 2018 / Published online: 25 June 2018
© The Author(s) 2018
This article examines the relationship between organizational ethics, the uncanny, and the annual celebration of Halloween.
We begin by exploring the traditional and contemporary organizational function of Halloween as ‘tension-management
ritual’ (Etzioni, Sociol Theory 18(1):44–59, 2000) through which collective fears, anxieties, and fantasies are played out and
given material expression. Combining the uncanny with the folkloric concept of ostension, we then examine an incident in
which UK supermarket retailers made national news headlines for selling offensive Halloween costumes depicting ‘escaped
mental patients’. Rather than treating this incident as a problem of moral hygiene—in which products are removed, apolo-
gies made, and lessons learned—we consider the value of Halloween as a unique and disruptive ethical encounter with the
uncanny Other. Looking beyond its commercial appeal and controversy, we reflect on the creative, generous, and disruptive
potential of Halloween as both tension-management ritual and unique organizational space of hospitality through which to
receive and embrace alterity and so discover the homely within the unheimlich.
Keywords Alterity· Halloween· Mental health· Organizational ethics· Other· Uncanny
The new spectrality is there – and we’re entirely within
this real illusion. We’ve nothing more than thisreal
illusion before us and behind us. There’s no longer an
outside, neither a nostalgic one, nor a mythic one, nor
any urgency for reason to disengage us from the spec-
trality of the real. There’s neither place nor time – and
this is the real.Only a radical ‘Unheimlich’ remains in
which we’re immersed.
Negri, (1999, p. 9)
In the Autumn of 2013, national supermarket chains and
online retailers in the United Kingdom made news headlines
for selling adult Halloween costumes based on the theme
of the ‘escaped mental patient’ and ‘psycho-ward’ (BBC
September 2013). The online catalogue items depicted male
figures in blood spattered faux medical gowns and straight-
jackets, wielding knives, and syringes. Mental health
charities, the news media, and social media campaigners
responded by branding the costumes offensive and insensi-
tive both to those living with mental health issues and to
the carers, professions, and institutions that support them
(Betton etal. 2015). Several weeks later, and in response to
growing pressure, two supermarkets stocking the costumes
issued press releases apologizing for any offence caused and
the costumes were withdrawn from sale. At the same time, a
second news headline covered a similar campaign calling for
UK theme park company Thorpe Park to close its own men-
tal health-themed Halloween attraction the Asylum Maze in
which paying customers are chased around an indoor maze
by actors dressed as violent escaped mental patients (BBC
October 2013). An unsuccessful petition was launched with
the theme park owners responding by citing the previous
8years in which this attraction had run without complaint.
In the weeks that followed, news media and online com-
mentators engaged in polarizing debates around the morality
of producing and consuming ‘mental patient’ themed Hal-
loween products, but as October 31st came around and the
* Simon Kelly
Kathleen Riach
1 Department ofManagement, Huddersfield Business School,
University ofHuddersfield, Queensgate, Huddersfield,
WestYorkshireHD13DH, UK
2 Department ofManagement, Faculty ofBusiness
andEconomics, Monash University, PO Box197,
CaulfieldEast, VIC3145, Australia
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104 S.Kelly, K.Riach
1 3
news agenda shifted, reports of the incident were eventually
consigned to the online archive.
Drawing on the emerging field of ‘organizational ethics’
as distinct from business ethics (Byers and Rhodes 2007;
Hancock 2008; Lim 2007; Pullen and Rhodes 2014), this
article contends that this incident of ‘mental health’ themed
Halloween products and services deserves to be revisited
and re-examined—not as a problem of moral hygiene in
which products are removed, apologies made, and lessons
learned—but as a unique ethical encounter with the uncanny
Other. Unlike other religious and civic celebrations, Hallow-
een invites participants to come face-to-face with difference,
alterity, and with it new and potentially unsettling subjectivi-
ties. This is an inherently uncanny relationship between self
and other that is arguably present in many forms of every-
day and organizational experience (Beyes and Steyaert 2013;
Royle 2003), but one that is heightened during an engage-
ment with Halloween (Mueller etal. 2007). In seeking to sit-
uate Halloween within the study of organization, our article
begins by exploring its affective and aesthetic function as a
kind of uncanny ‘tension-management ritual’ (Etzioni 2000),
in which the structures and conventions of ‘normal’ organi-
zation are temporarily suspended and inverted through acts
of ‘ritual rebellion’ and ‘playing out’ (Nelson 2000). If folk
rituals and homemade costumes and artefacts might have
once reflected the very specific fears and anxieties of local
communities preparing for the change and transformation of
the seasons by turning to mysticism and folklore (Feldman
2001; Santino 1994), then contemporary attempts to com-
mercialize Halloween arguably bring with them similarly
rich cultural and organizational insights. Through our analy-
sis of the 2013 Halloween costume incident, we observe
that the simple removal of ‘offensive’ mental health-themed
products from public view appear to merely deny a more
complex ethical call to scrutinize the perceived relationship
between perceptions of mental health, masculine violence,
and institutionalization as expressed in and through the aes-
thetic of the Halloween costumes and theme park experi-
ences. Indeed, the reoccurrence of less high-profile instances
of ‘offensive’ Halloween products in the years that followed
this particular scandal (see Alexander 2014; Lennonet al.
2016; Scott 2017) suggests that the more such incidents are
negated on moral grounds, the more this negation seems to
create the conditions for their return. As such, the contem-
porary celebration Halloween itself seems to offer little in
terms of seasonal tension-management and is instead a par-
ticularly potent organizational site for an unresolved cycle
of commercial offense-contrition-offense.
In seeking to understand and potentially disrupt this
cycle, we argue that such instances in which themes of Hal-
loween, violence, and mental health become intertwined
should not be dismissed as a moral transgression or commer-
cial misdemeanour to be somehow repaired and overcome,
but as a fragile moment of uncanny disturbance and disrup-
tion (Masschelein 2011; Pullen and Rhodes 2014) through
which acts of commercial ‘playing out’ serve to express, but
also contain and ultimately normalize fears of otherness and
alterity. Drawing on the folkloric concept of ostension (see
Dégh and Vázsonyi 1983; Tolbert 2013)—a process through
which myth and legend is turned into a material reality—we
demonstrate how such uncanny disturbances represented in
the aesthetic and embodied commercial choices of the super-
market retailers can and should be read as a subtle form
of ostensive action in which collective fears, anxieties, and
prejudices of the unknown and unknowable Other are given
affective force and material expression. The supermarket
costumes in question were marketed for men, advertised
using male models, and based on hyper-masculine horror
movie tropes of serial killers, single-mindedly hunting down
and murdering their victims usually represented as femi-
nine or feminized Others (see Creed 1993; Vachhani 2014).
As we observe, the intrusion of commercial enterprise into
private and domestic seasonal celebrations of Halloween
further serves to reinforce a narrow and constraining set of
power relations and gender norms that seek to control and
repress otherness and alterity by turning cinematic tropes of
escaped mental patients into a lived experience through the
manufacture and sale of themed costumes. Finally, rather
than seeking to denounce or explain away such products
we conclude by offering an alternative reading through
which such tropes and stereotypes might be read very differ-
ently—not justas offensive symbols of mental health—but
as an embodiment of what Antonio Negri calls a ‘radical
unheimlich’ (1999)—expressed here in costume form as a
grotesque and violent monstrous guardian of an uncertain
and unethical moral order whose presence serves to close
down an openness to alterity—as difference is reduce to
same and otherness turned into abjection. In challenging
and subverting this figure, we recommend a turn to an ‘eth-
ics of organization’ in which generosity and responsibility
to the Other are foregrounded over legislation and moral
outrage (Hancock 2008; Pullen and Rhodes 2014). This
requires a recognition that Halloween—as a unique form
of organizing—can still offer a ritual space for exploring,
experimenting with, and celebrating alterity if the ethical
(rather than moral and legislative) lesson of this incident
is heeded: That alterity cannot be branded, bought or sold,
and that seeking to commercialize and profit from holidays
and celebrations like Halloween risks continually invoking
the immoral, offensive, and the grotesque. In contrast, we
contend that Halloween could and should represent a unique
ethical opportunity to experience and embrace tension and
uncertainty by creating a generous (albeit disruptive) organi-
zational space of hospitality in which to receive and so take
responsibility for the Others that are invoked in collective
attempts to make ourselves at home with the unheimlich.
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105Halloween, Organization, andtheEthics ofUncanny Celebration
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Halloween asEthical Encounter
The starting point for our analysis of Halloween and the
uncanny is based on an observation that seasonal celebra-
tions are often not included in studies of management and
organization. Although such celebrations are a global event
driving and shaping the spending habits of entire nations,
it is still rare for management and organizational scholars
to consider them a topic worthy of serious attention (Han-
cock 2016; Hancock and Rehn 2011). Indeed, as Hancock
reflects in his study of organizing Christmas, it is perhaps the
association with childhood whimsy that means such events
lack a sense of intellectual gravitas (Hancock 2016, p. 755).
Of course, the same could certainly be said of the study of
Halloween where in place of romantic childhood whimsy
there is the more macabre and fantastical associations with
death, transformation, and the monstrous (Santino 1994;
Skal 1994). Yet, like Christmas, Halloween has a significant
economic impact with the population of the United States
in 2017 reportedly spending a record $9.1billion on Hal-
loween confectionary and products (National Retail Federa-
tion 2017), and the UK spending around £320million on
the same (Dover 2017). Halloween therefore matters eco-
nomically, but it is also an important cultural event that pre-
sents broader organizational, moral, and ethical challenges
when producing, consuming, and observing this seasonable
As a rich blend of organized celebration and ethical
encounter, Halloween is unique in that it is recognized and
observed in many countries around the world and yet it is not
a religious or holy day, or a civic holiday. As Etzioni (2000)
following Durkheim observes, holidays of any kind serve to
represent the cultural attributes and mood of a society and
community, but they also serve as important public rituals
for integration and recommitment through which individuals
can be integrated into and later reaffirm their commitment to
societal values through celebrations like birthdays, anniver-
saries, religious or holy days, and national memorials. How-
ever, there are other holidays that serve a different purpose in
what Etzioni terms ‘tension-management rituals’. These are
holidays that provide a means of safely playing out collective
unease by temporarily inverting or making fun of existing
cultural and social norms and power structures with the goal
of re-establishing such structures once this tension has been
allowed expression. Examples of such rituals might include
April Fool’s Day in which truth telling is inverted, or Leap
Years in which gendered marriage proposal customs are
reversed. Yet curiously, Halloween presents a problem for
Etzioni’s typology in which this seasonal event is eschewed
with a brief note that it might fit (albeit uncomfortably)
within the ‘tension-management’ category. Yet for Etzioni it
does not really seem to belong anywhere (see Etzioni 2000,
p. 48). As we will later observe, this discomfort and lack
of analytical home speaks directly to Halloween’s intimate
relationship with the uncanny. After all, Halloween is not
really a ‘day’ as such, but something that occurs sometime
after dark and until the passing of midnight. It may even
take place on a weekend prior to or just after October 31st
(Morton 2012). However, despite these discomforts and flu-
idities, Halloween as a celebration predates other Western
religious and monotheistic dates in the seasonal calendar
with its pre-Christian roots as Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-
in’)—an ancient Irish Celtic festival marking the end of the
summer harvest and the beginning of winter (also bringing
with it the darkest nights and shortest days (Feldman 2001;
Santino 1994)). Halloween also represents what in folklore
studies is termed a seasonal calendar custom (Simpson and
Roud 2003). These are yearly events that, like the uncanny,
may struggle to be fully defined or described, but which
mark a collective transition or moment of significant change
and transformation of self, community, and the world.
In its late twentieth and early twenty-first century incarna-
tions, Halloween arguably still serves as a calendar custom,
but one whose purpose is made less clear as it exists some-
where between a generic party night, a commercial exercise
in satisfying the desires and habits of consumers, and as
something as likely to be observed by the media and large
online and high street retailers as it is by communities or
individuals (Belk 1990). Here we might also observe that
the aesthetic of the celebration has become something of
a retrotopia (Bauman 2017) in which traditional and often
non-binary Halloween figures drawn from folklore and
mysticism such as fairies (or the mischievous Celtic sidh),
demons, ghosts, and goblins are replaced with violent hyper-
masculine monsters of gothic horror and over-sexualized
feminine objects of desire (Alexander 2014; Nelson 2000).
As David Skal (1994) describes in his cultural analysis of
horror cinema, the insertion of predatory male horror icons
like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, and The
Wolf Man into the Halloween pantheon has nothing to do
with ancient tradition. Instead, it was a deliberate re-brand-
ing strategy by UniversalStudios in 1957 to make money
from their ailing horror movie stock by targeting the new
U.S. home television market. As Skal observes, as televi-
sion screens in homes across North America became awash
with horror monsters, ‘Monster Culture’ was born as figures
from television and cinema became synonymous with Hal-
loween celebrations across the world as a celebration of the
monstrous, the murderous, and the masculine. Similarly, the
practice of dressing up in costume and ‘trick or treating’ in
which gift giving is inverted and caught in tension between
hospitality/hostility (Caputo 1997; Rehn 2014),1 may
1 The implicit hostility and risk of selecting ‘trick’ is evident in the
decision made by UK retailer ASDA supermarket in 2004 to ban the
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106 S.Kelly, K.Riach
1 3
alsohave the appearance of an ancient European custom,
but historically is reported to have first appeared as a term
used in 1920s North America, before becoming the estab-
lished children’s door-to-door search for sweets and candy
by the 1950s (Feldman 2001; Morton 2012). Yet despite (or
perhaps because of) this liquid retropotic history endlessly
blending fact, fiction, and fantasy, Halloween has persisted
as an adaptable calendar custom to expand and become the
globally recognized event and consumer brand it is today
(Alexander 2014; Belk 1990).
Yet Halloween is not a comfortable calendar custom to
participate in and even in its late twentieth and early twenty-
first century incarnations it is regularly a site for controversy,
danger, and offence. These might be controversies and scan-
dals involving race and gender (see Mueller etal. 2007; Len-
non etal. 2016), or the perceived threat of demonic Black-
Eyed Children (Lockley 2014), predatory Killer Clowns
(Evans 2016), or worries over safety as seen in the public
panic in the United States throughout the 1970s concerning
poisoned candy and chocolates containing razor blades that
persisted into the following decades. As folklorists Dégh
and Vázsonyi (1983) observe, such perceived threats and
panics are often based on urban myths that capture public
imagination and spread. However, some also become part
of actual events such as the tragic death in Texas in 1974 of
8-year-old Timothy O’Bryan who died of cyanide poison-
ing after eating Halloween candy. As Dégh and Vázsonyi
recount, Timothy’s father was found guilty and convicted for
the murder of his son and was later executed in 1984—but
not before his prison nick-name The Candy Man went on to
create a new urban myth and Halloween monster. Such cases
are an important reminder that Halloween is something more
than a seasonal celebration, calendar custom, or tension-
management ritual. In its contemporary manifestations as a
unique mode of organization, the celebration of Halloween
represents an ever changing and complex ethical encounter
with the uncanny Other.
The Uncanny andanEthics ofOrganization
In recent years, there has been a growing critical debate
concerning the notion of and limits to a business and corpo-
rate ethics (Bevan and Corvellec 2007; Jones 2003; Rasche
2010). As Lim (2007) notes, where business ethics might
provide an important system of governance and set of legal
limitations to manage the pursuit of profit and power, the
very alignment of ethics with business goals and ends itself
presents an ethical dilemma. This is particularly so when
considering a Levinasian ethics through which to encoun-
ter the strangeness of the other (Lim 2007, p. 251)—an
unknowability, that Lim argues, the utilitarianism of busi-
ness cannot accommodate. Similarly, Beyers and Rhodes
(2007) reflect on Levinasian themes of justice and respon-
sibility as potentially antithetical to many formal and rule-
bound notions of business and corporate ethics. As they
remark, the pursuit of justice in particular ‘should not here
serve as an excuse for distancing or blinding me from the
Other, nor one of ethically absolving me from the exercise
of power’ (Beyers and Rhodes 2007, p. 249).
More recently, Pullen and Rhodes (2014) assert the need
for an embodied or corporeal ethics in which the tenets of
formal ethical rules and procedure are replaced with a privi-
leging of practical and embodied ethics grounded in bod-
ies and everyday conduct. Building on Hancock’s (2008)
adaptation of the work of Rosalyn Diprose (2002), they
contend that unlike legislative notions of business ethics an
ethics of organization is never a final accomplishment and is
never settled. Rather it is an ongoing and deliberately radical
engagement with and exploration of the disruptive poten-
tial of generosity, hospitality, and openness to the Other.
As Pullen and Rhodes (2014, p. 249) observe, a radical cor-
poreal ethics as ‘pre-reflective embodied interaction is one
where to be ethical is to respond to the other with generos-
ity before thinking about one’s own advantage and before
imposing organizational schemes. Where themes of strange-
ness, otherness, responsibility, embodiment, openness, and
generosity speak to the organizational context of ethics in
opposition to the corporate, we suggest that Halloween too
can be read as operating at the disruptive intersection of the
known/unknown, familiar/strange, embodied/disembodied,
hospitality/hostility, difference/same. As such, an encounter
with Halloween requires not only an ethical sensibility, but
an appreciation of and respect for its Other, its disruptive
double, the presence of which can quickly transform pleas-
ant Halloween celebrations into spaces of threat, offence,
and scandal.2
2 As the incidents described in this article attest, Halloween has
always had a powerful disruptive potential with perhaps one the most
infamous examples being Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of H.G.
Wells The War of the Worlds, first broadcast on the evening of 31
October 1938. The radio play represented as a newscast of an alien
invasion created such widespread panic across parts of North Amer-
ica that Welles had to formally apologize to the media and the public
the following day. However, as Welles argued, the staging of his play
on Halloween night was more than just a prank, it was a deliberate
attempt to engage in an ethical form of disruption. As Welles pro-
claimed: ‘The radio was believed in America. That was a voice from
heaven, you see. And I wanted to destroy that as dramatically as pos-
sible’ (Welles, in Henderson 2008).
Footnote 1 (continued)
sale of eggs to teenagers in the weeks leading up to Halloween (Mor-
ton 2012, 91).
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107Halloween, Organization, andtheEthics ofUncanny Celebration
1 3
This is because more than anything else, Halloween is
a celebration of the uncanny. Like the possibility of ethics,
the uncanny can be difficult to describe or define with any
precision or satisfaction. As recently proposed by Massche-
lein (2011) and later applied by Beyes and Steyaert (2013),
the uncanny presents an analytical challenge as it actively
resists categorization as concept. It is something experi-
enced, something affective, but with every attempt to define
or contain it resulting in a doubling and with it the creation
of other possibilities. So ‘uncanny’ could be described in
terms of its German translation from unheimlich meaning
‘unhomely’. It equally can mean creepy, scary, unsettling,
unfamiliar, and so on, but it can also translate as ‘furtive’
and ‘hidden’. As Masschelein (2011, p. 11) observes, the
uncanny may be more usefully considered as negative or
In this sense, the term “unconcept” exceeds the uncon-
scious dynamics of repression and the return of the
repressed […] It also serves as a reminder of the con-
cept’s peculiar location “in between” or “on the verge”:
on the verge of sliding from the plane of immanence
onto the plane of composition and vice versa, on the
verge of between concept and affect, and on the verge
of no longer being a concept, of dissipating again into
chaos or into doxa and emerging from it in unexpected
This unending movement between concept and affect is
why all things uncanny should not be reduced merely to the
frightening, spooky, or horrifying. To experience something
as uncanny can sometimes include the frightening, but this
is to miss the more profound character of uncanniness in
that it is our very familiarity with that which we now fear
that provides it with its own unique quality as a source of
disquiet and terror (Royle 2003). In Sigmund Freud’s 1919
essay The Uncanny, he spends an entire section exploring
the origins of the word itself in order to underline the impor-
tance of the ‘home’ and the ‘familiar’ as foundations for
this peculiar form of experience. Indeed, it is Freud’s short
essay that provides most intellectual starting points for any
investigation of uncanniness. For Freud, this is a sensation
intimately bound up with (masculine) fears of castration,
one that he explores through a close reading of ETA Hoff-
man’s The Sandman. For Freud, this text and the work of
Hoffman generally is an ideal way in which to explore and
understand the uncanny. Hoffman’s tale of a young man’s
journey into madness provides many of the characteristics
of Freudian uncanniness: the childhood story of the myste-
rious Sandman who plucks out the eyes of children to feed
to his young; the doubling effect of the characters Coppola
and Coppelius who may or may not be the same man (and
indeed may be the Sandman himself); the doll Olympia with
whom Nathanial falls in love and the eventual unravelling of
his world as he is plagued by his repressed childhood terrors.
Yet just like the uncanny as unconcept, Freud’s essay
(and indeed Freud’s own interest in this topic) is similarly
haunted by its own double or doppelgänger. This is an author
and text to which Freud is indebted and yet one which he
(and subsequently most who read the uncanny through
Freud) dismiss as a mere background or preparatory reading
(seeMorlock 1995; Jentsch/Sellars 1906/1995). This dop-
pelgänger is the earlier 1906 essay by German psychologist
Ernst Jentsch entitled ‘On the psychology of the uncanny’.
Not only does Jentsch’s essay pre-date Freud’s by 13years,
but his essay also provides the foundations and key charac-
teristics and resources upon which Freud depended for his
own formulation and discussion. Importantly for our interest
in Halloween and ethics, Jentsch also starts from a subtly dif-
ferent position to Freud. Where Freud sees the uncanny as a
product of psycho-sexual repression, Jentsch acknowledges
that the uncanny can be both an individual and collective
affective experience, an experience that he characterizes as
‘psychological uncertainty’. Where Freud considers the ety-
mology and inner psychic explanations for our experience
of the uncanny, Jentsch is very careful to avoid essential-
isms. As Jentsch states explicitly at the beginning of the
essay, the uncanny—like Masschelein’s unconcept—has no
essence, no internal properties, and so cannot be approached
as an independent experience or ‘thing’ in itself. As Jentsch
cautions, we should not seek to approach the essence of
the uncanny ‘… but rather to investigate how the affective
excitement of the uncanny arises […] how the psychical
conditions must be constituted so that the ‘uncanny’ sensa-
tion emerges’ (Jentsch 1906 trans Sellers 1995, p. 3). There-
fore, for Jentsch the uncanny is not merely the repression
of some inner sexual anxieties, but something more akin to
a phenomenological encounter in which the individual or
collective has a fleeting moment in which (given the right
circumstances) established understandings and interpreta-
tions of the world are disrupted and suspended resulting in
a sense of horror or deep discomfort about what might be
‘real’ and possible. It is here that Jentsch focusses on our
relationship with a world of persons and things (subjects
and objects)—particularly that moment when something
that was assumed to be object might in fact be living, or
when something assumed to be alive is revealed to be an
inanimate object. It is this tension between object and sub-
ject that creates a sense of unease as Jentsch reminds us of
childhood fascinations with dolls, masks, magic tricks, and
human medical conditions like mental illness and epileptic
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108 S.Kelly, K.Riach
1 3
seizures through which human movement and conscious
intension appears mechanical and controlled by some other
non-human force or logic.3 Moreover, for both Jentsch and
Freud, it is this uncertainty and fear surrounding the iden-
tity of this Other combined with the possibility of insanity
and subordination to a controlling force from outside of the
human world, which so often creates a particularly potent
uncanny—and we would add ethical—encounter held as it
is within a schism of unease as an impossible space on the
verge and in-between.
Exploring theUncanny Verge: The
Commercialization ofHalloween, Mental
Health, andHorror
We’re deeply sorry one of our fancy dress costumes
has upset people. This was an unacceptable error – the
product was withdrawn immediately.
Asda Tweet @asda. 25th September 2013
I think one of the problems that retailers have is obvi-
ously in their inventories they have hundreds and hun-
dreds and thousands of products and with that volume
it is inevitable that you are – on one occasion at least–
going to make a mistake.
Neil Saunders, Retail Analyst, Conlumino
(BBC News, 26th September 2013)
In the United Kingdom, the mainstream media tend to
steer away from Halloween as a news story. Where it is
mentioned it usually takes the form of a humorous ‘…and
finally’ piece on the regional television news, a local radio
phone-in topic, a ‘theme week’ on a celebrity talent show,
or as a cautionary newspaper story warning parents about
the risks of allowing children to roam the streets after dark
unaccompanied, or of eating too many sweets and neglect-
ing their teeth (Tanner 2017). In short, the celebration of
Halloween usually is not news in and of itself. This changed
in September 2013 when two large UK supermarket chains
were found to be selling Halloween costumes based on the
theme of the ‘escaped mental patient’ (BBC News, Septem-
ber 2013). The costumes sold on the websites of Tesco and
Asda supermarkets were aimed at an adult audience and
labelled ‘Mental Patient Fancy Dress Costume’ (Asda) and
‘Psycho Ward—Adult Costume’ (Tesco) and included pho-
tographs of male models posing in fully made-up versions
of what each costume might look like when worn. The first
image of Asda’s ‘mental patient’ shows a figure in a wig of
straggled dark hair, a mask depicting a bloody and disfig-
ured face, and wearing what appears to be a cross between
a straightjacket and a white medical gown. The outfit is also
blood spattered and tattered at its edges. The figure stands
with his arms crossed holding a bloodied meat cleaver. The
second costume provided by Tesco purports to depict a
patient from a ‘psycho ward’. The model is photographed
as he steps menacingly towards the camera wearing a U.S.
prison-style orange coverall (complete with ‘Psycho Ward’
label and a mock serial number emblazoned on his chest)
and brandishing a large medical syringe. Instead of a ghoul-
ish wig, this male model is bald save for a brown plastic
mask that covers his nose and mouth. This is the mask made
famous by Hannibal Lecter in the Hollywood movie The
Silence of the Lambs which references the need to protect
people from the character’s cannibalistic tendencies. Accom-
panying (even juxtaposing) this frightening imagery is the
more mundane matter of size and colour options as well as
the price of each item.
The appearance of these costumes on online stores of two
of the UK’s most popular supermarket chains (and avail-
able online via Amazon UK) prompted an immediate public
reaction. The national media, mental health charities, and
campaigners all branded the costumes offensive and as dem-
onstrating a high degree of ignorance and disregard for those
living with mental illness and for the healthcare sector that
supports them. Members of the public having read the news
story engaged in a social media campaign on Facebook and
Twitter in which self-portrait photographs (or selfies) where
taken by people living with mental health issues to provide
a counter image of what a mental health patient looks like
using the hashtag #mentalpatient (Betton etal. 2015). Retail-
ers responded swiftly, and the costumes were removed from
their online stores. Representatives from the companies con-
cerned provided public apologies and donations were made
to mental health charities to underscore their regret at any
offence caused.
The event was recast as an ‘error’ or ‘mistake’ by the
companies themselves and by news media pundits, and that
seemed to be the end of the story: a poor purchasing judge-
ment made by some supermarkets and online retailers that
was quickly addressed in the face of public outrage. How-
ever, in the days and weeks following this incident a second
related media event occurred. National tabloid newspapers
The Sun and The Daily Mirror both broke the story that
in the UK over a ten-year period around 1200 people are
recorded as being killed by ‘mental patients’ (Bagot 2013;
Parry and Moyes 2013). The story covered the tragic mur-
der of a 16-year-old girl by a man diagnosed with paranoid
schizophrenia who had only recently been released from jail.
The newspapers also cited findings from a research study
carried out by Manchester University, UK that suggested
3 Indeed, it is Jentsch’s essay on the uncanny (rather than Freud’s)
and his notion of ‘psychological uncertainty’ that informs contem-
porary discussions of the ‘uncanny valley’ and its application in 3D
computer animation, augmented reality, robotics, and artificial intel-
ligence (see Tinwell 2014).
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109Halloween, Organization, andtheEthics ofUncanny Celebration
1 3
that the ten-year recorded rise of killings and patient sui-
cides was linked to severe cuts in healthcare budgets and
the subsequent strain placed on mental healthcare services.
There was no explicit mention of or link made to the
earlier Halloween costume scandal, yet the two appar-
ently unconnected news stories appeared within days of
each other and all in the lead up to Halloween. Both sto-
ries also used the same provocative and medically inac-
curate language of the ‘mental patient’ and it was not long
before other national newspapers criticized The Sun and
The Daily Mirror for what they described as irresponsible
and misleading journalism. As the Independent Newspaper
reported (Morse 2013), those living with mental illness are
far more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetra-
tors of violent crime. Moreover, the statistics used in the
Manchester University research study showed an overall
drop in the number of cases rather than a rise. Other voices
from mental health charities such as Mind also expressed
their concern at the inaccurate reporting of the study and
the continued misleading connection made between mental
health and violence (Mind 2013).
Another link in this pre-Halloween chain of news sto-
ries came several weeks later when UK-based theme park
provider Thorpe Park was criticized by the news media and
by mental health campaigners for also offering an inappro-
priate Halloween-themed experience based around a men-
tal health issue (BBC News October 2013). The Thorpe
Park Fright Nights are an annual Halloween event organ-
ized by the park for the past decade and include an experi-
ence called The Asylum Maze in which paying customers
are chased around a maze of corridors by actors dressed
as escaped and violent asylum patients—again wearing
coveralls, pseudo-medical outfits, masks, and wielding
knives and other weapons. As the BBC reported, the story
was drawn to the attention of the national media by men-
tal health nursing student Katie Sutton who had been told
about the theme park attraction as part of a university class
discussion on representations of mental health. In response,
Katie launched an online petition which at the time col-
lected over 900 signatures demanding the closure of The
Asylum Maze due to its stigmatization of mental illness.
Representatives at Thorpe Park refused to act on the peti-
tion citing an insufficient number of signatures. The park
also defended its decision to continue with the Halloween
experience by citing the previous eight years in which the
event had run without drawing complaint. Since this news
story first broke, the petition collected nearly 6000 signa-
tures and the decision of Thorpe Park was questioned by
others in the news media and healthcare sector who called
for a change to the name of the event in future years and an
end to the stereotyping of mental health issues.
A final contributing voice to this incident of Halloween,
violence, and mental health also came from online fancy
dress provider Escapade who in their company blog pro-
vided their own response to the unfolding mental patient
news story. In this anonymous blog entry, the writer
defended Escapades decision to continue selling the contro-
versial ‘Psycho Ward’ costume by arguing that the costume
had nothing to do with mental health issues as it is based
on existing characters from horror cinema. As they explain:
Our ‘psycho killer film’ products are merely an exten-
sion of that films’ own merchandising – its intention
is not to promote the actions of its characters or the
public reaction to them, but simply the piece of art
itself. We offer a chance to dress up as a character, the
choice of comment you make as the wearer is entirely
your own. (Escapade 2013)
This response and the subsequent decision to continue to
sell ‘psycho’-themed fancy dress costumes hassince gener-
ated its own news interest—particularly around the com-
pany’s2017 ‘psychotic nympho’ costume that combined
violence, mental health, and female sexualization in what
the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists described
as ‘one of the worst I’ve seen’ (Al-Othman 2017).
Taking Ostensive Action
The supermarkets who apologetically withdrew their Hal-
loween costumes arguably engaged in a moral and legislative
act (Byers and Rhodes 2007; Hancock 2008), a calculation
that would provide the more expedient way of resolving
this issue through apology and repentance. This was an
‘unacceptable error’ and something not intended. Yet as the
Escapade blog post above suggests, these costumes where
thought about and designed. Materials were ordered and
stitched together, masks moulded, product orders placed,
models and photographers employed, and advertising plat-
forms produced and circulated. To describe these prod-
ucts as an ‘error’ seems to overlook the scale of planning,
organization, and labour untaken. Additionally, an attempt
to reconstruct this event as an error or mistake also replaces
the possibility for ethical engagement with a crude moral
certainty, a transgression that can be resolved and so over-
come. Yet where making a moral decision—whether through
apology, or by appealing to artistic freedom and consumer
choice—may provide a sense of closure and security, it also
risks missing the point. The aesthetic of the costumes, the
implied existence of an asylum and associated institutional
frameworks indexed through serial numbers, straight-jackets
and coveralls, and the transgressions of the monstrous mas-
culine figures as ‘escapees’ all draw attention to and prey
upon an uncanny collective fear of otherness and the ever-
present threat of disorganization and institutional failure.
Arguably, this is emblematic of a wider poor perception of
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110 S.Kelly, K.Riach
1 3
mental illness in the UK and beyond, an illness that still
struggles to be recognized and respected alongside other
more outwardly visible, measurable, and treatable biologi-
cal conditions (Mind 2013). Indeed, one of the challenges
of understanding mental health generally is that ‘health’ and
‘illness’ are treated as such definitive and opposing labels
(Dale and Burrell 2014; Jack and Brewis 2005).
Therefore, rather than seeking to dismiss or resolve the
existence of the supermarket costumes and theme park expe-
rience, these events could be read differently by engaging
with notions of the uncanny and the uncanny Other as rep-
resented in these costumes through what folklorists term
ostension. Taken from the Latin ‘ostendere’, meaning ‘to
show’, ostension or ostensive action (see Dégh and Vázso-
nyi 1983; Tolbert 2013) marks that moment in which nar-
rative intrudes into lived social reality, and through which
legends and myth are given materiality and affective force.
When treated as a similar process of ‘showing’ or acting
out, through ostensive action we might read the commer-
cial design, creation, and marketing of these costumes in an
alternative way as a means of clumsily seeking to embody
and so express and exploit a profound and deeply embedded
anxiety around mental health. As both Jentsch and Freud
have reminded us, such anxieties refuse to be ignored and so
push their way back into our lived experience. In this case,
using fragments of collective urban myths, legends, and hor-
ror tropes to unsettle, disrupt, and so force an engagement
with an uncanny double made into a material reality through
the figure of the ‘escaped mental patient’. Here we are also
reminded of Jentsch’s discussion of the role of the mask
and doll’s face as a shared symbol and terror of a disem-
bodied consciousness watching us from the shadows; the
fear of being pursued by an unstoppable entity that appears
human but has all the characteristics of a cold and calculat-
ing machine; or a mechanical or animate object that may
secretly be alive, observing and waiting for an opportunity to
strike. Importantly, Dégh and Vázsonyi’s folkloric concept
of ostensive action also provides a response to the author
of the Escapade blog: that such figures taken from horror
cinema are not merely an expression of an artwork that con-
sumers can choose to engage with or ignore. When read as
ostension, we can argue that the uncanny doubling effect of
these figures demands scrutiny and a collective -rather than
individual- ethical response in which this shared ‘we’ takes
responsibility for the uncanny double that is created out of
a commercial attempt to profit from a tension-management
ritual. Whether we individually choose to purchase and
wear an ‘escaped mental patient’ costume, or watch a hor-
ror movie, there is still the ethical call to question why such
figures persist, what they signify and to whom, and (perhaps
more importantly) who and what they seek to constrain, con-
tain, marginalize, and silence.
Welcoming theUncanny Other
The fancy dress costumes, the media reporting of the dan-
gers posed by ‘mental patients’, and the asylum theme park,
all draw on a similar fear of violence from someone (or
some thing) that appears human but is driven by an almost
mechanical force. This tension between human–machine,
subject/object is captured in the repeated use of the cover-
all and mask in the pictures promoting these products and
services. These uncanny entities are excessively violent and
monstrous (Thanem 2006, 2011), but they are also anony-
mous, hidden, furtive, and unemotional disciplined subjects.
Moreover, they are institutionalized, confined, numbered,
categorized, but have broken free and are now unknown,
uncontrollable, and transgressive. Importantly, (and in
contrast to many ofthe photographs shared as part of the
#mentalpatient social media campaign) theyare also depic-
tions of men and the masculine. Similarly, thechoice of the
names given to the costumes, the pseudo-medical clothing,
syringes, and serial numbers allexplicitly feed on a concern
about the status, care, and security of those in society who
live with mental health issues—a mysterious world which
many have little direct knowledge of beyond the stories
presented in news media, film, and television (McLean and
Hoskin 1998; Seivers 1999). However, as a form of ‘acting
out’ or ostensive action, the costumes also reference the
far more insidious cultural and gendered representations of
mental illness commonly found in popular horror movies
that directly link mental ill-health with supernatural vio-
lence. Take John Carpenter’s 1978 movieHalloween and the
archetypal unstoppable killer Michael Myers who, like our
supermarket models and theme park actors, is also dressed
in a mask and coverall, wielding a large knife following his
escape from a mental healthcare institution.
Organization as institutionalization is also a central theme
of other such cinematic representations. Take for exam-
ple Hitchcock’s Psycho where the theft from an employer
leads the female protagonist into similar themes of insan-
ity, costumes, complex identities, disembodied (and mul-
tiple) voices and apparently meaningless killing. To this
list we might also add moviessuch as The Shining, Black
Christmas, The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Mas-
sacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Exor-
cist, Child’s Play, Candy Man, The Silence of the Lambs,
Scream, and Asylum. These examplesall draw connections
between the medical, the institutional, the psychological,
abnormality, and the threat of supernatural violence. It is
also particularly worth noting that they are all almost with-
out exception depictions of men preying upon women. In
other words, there is an excessive and violent masculinity
in all of the commercial and media-related representations
of the escaped mental patient discussed thus far. Whether
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111Halloween, Organization, andtheEthics ofUncanny Celebration
1 3
this is represented in the design of costumes, or characters
in a theme park experience, onfilmor television, in each
case the male killer’s identity and motivations are hidden
and mysterious. The on-screen personas referenced by the
fancy dress costumes are cold and calculating in their actions
and their apparent ‘madness’ does not stem from a form of
hysteria, or excess of emotion as they do not lose control. On
the contrary, they are purposeful, careful, efficient, almost
mirroring an idealized organizational subject (consider here
the extended scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho in which Nor-
man Bates meticulously cleans the bathroom following his
brutal act of murder, or Hannibal Lecter’s satisfaction in
carefully preparing a meal made up of human body parts).
This is in contrast to the other Other typically pursued by
this uncanny murderous figure, the feminine screen victim
who is depicted as emotionally excessive, unprepared, out
of control, terrified, vulnerable, and often clumsy in their
attempts to escape from danger.
Therefore, within each of these cinematic depictions and
representationsthere is arguably a hidden other in these
supermarket images whose absent-presence is signified by
the very specific (and repeated) aesthetic used in each of the
examples. Where Jentsch reminds us of the unsettling power
that exists in the tension between subject/object, here we
might also return again to Freud to ask why there is a con-
certed effort by commercial organizations like supermarket
chains and theme parks to market such products through a
combination of gendered representations of mental health
and tropes taken from horror cinema? Taking inspiration
from Pullen and Rhodes (2014), we suggest that an ethical
and corporeal (rather than moral and corporate) response
might include recognizing that embodied in the material
form of the escaped mental patient costume is the phallic
fear of losing one’s own psychical freedom and virility.
Just as one cannot know what it is like to be insane without
first losing one’s sanity, the manufacturers and retailers of
such products invite consumers (and perhaps themselves) to
indulge a fascination with all that is repressed about mental
health by projecting it outward through uncanny ostensive
action.4 However, we are told that responsibility for this
uncanny Other does not lie with the commercial providers
of such products, but with the consumer. Yet as Alexan-
der (2014) notes in her analysis of designs of heroic male
Halloween costumes, there is a denial of responsibility here
on the part of manufacturers in their attempt to colonize
and brand Halloween andmasculinity, and in so doing to
marginalize femininity and with it the possibility of differ-
ence. As Alexander argues, this is not ‘a mere masquerade,
an impersonation; rather commercially produced costumes
masquerade as consumer “choice” while simultaneously
masking the continued transformation of [American] mas-
culinity into specific brand products’ (2014, p. 180). In the
same way, perhaps the true offence committed by these cos-
tumes is not in their aesthetic, but in the attempt to brand
and so control and marginalize difference and otherness.
The figure of the ‘escaped mental patient’ could therefore
be alternatively read not as uncanny Other, but as the other
reduced to same. This is a commercially sanctioned pseudo-
Other whose existence negates the need for any meaningful
dialogue about mental health, alterity, or collective responsi-
bility to others, as we are instead encouraged to dismiss such
products simply as fun horror characters to experiment with,
or as offensive and regrettable purchasing decisions later to
be apologetically removed from view.
In her book The Monstrous Feminine Barbara Creed
(1993) suggests that the reproduction of certain gendered
aesthetics may play a significant role in how one might read
events like this case of Halloween, mental health, and vio-
lence described here. As Creed observes, the use of the male
‘slasher’ figure in popular culture and horror cinemacan
(and perhaps should) be read as an attempt to express a mas-
culine fear of castration rather than a show of strength or
domination. Where for Freud it is the female who is sym-
bolically castrated by her lack of phallic power, for Creed it
is masculine fear of being castrated by the female Other that
drives this horror cliché. It is the feminine, therefore, that is
Other, monstrous and powerful, and so must be combated
by these hyper-masculine and unemotional characters who
stand for the status quo, defending sameness in the face of
difference(Creed 1993; Vachhani 2014). Perhaps it is here
in Creed’s reclaiming of popular culture and horror that we
may find a final clue as to why the supermarket costumes
passed undetected through the quality checks, policies, and
procedures of retailers and regulators. Was this an error or
mistake, or following Creed, could it be read as a collec-
tive form of commercial ostensive action through which
the costumes were produced and marketed for their implicit
totemic power to somehow guard against a depletion of male
power or toprotect the wearer against phallocentric anxie-
ties of the feminine Other? As Morton (2012) observes in
her history of Halloween, traditional Celtic celebrations of
Samhain would often draw on themes of nature, goddess
worship, shapeshifting, and sexual transgression that existed
at the intersection between the ordinary and the extraordi-
nary. An example of this can be found in popular tales of the
sidh (fairies) who would use the night of Samhain to cross
between their world and ours to seduce, mislead, and trap
unsuspecting men for all eternity in their mystical realm.
Given this rich mythical context, is it perhaps unsurprising
then that contemporary commercialized Halloween products
are similarly shot through with tensions and contradictions
4 As film director Stanley Kubrick famously stated (paraphrasing
Freud), ‘…the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully
experienced in art than in life’ (Ciment 1982).
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112 S.Kelly, K.Riach
1 3
around gender, identity, power, transgression, hospitality/
hostility, magic, and commerce. The ethical warning to be
heeded may therefore be in realizing that seeking to resolve
or negate such incidents by reducing them to ‘mistakes’,
or simply erasing the evidence, not only erases any pos-
sibility of recognizing and welcoming the Other, but also
makes it far more likely that such incidents will occur again
in the future as unresolved anxieties seek to find expression
through ostensive action and validation in new hegemonic
regimes. As this article has demonstrated, this is particularly
so during unsettling (and increasingly commercialized) sea-
sonal celebrations like Halloween.
Conclusion, orHow toFeel atHome
Samhain isn’t evil spirits. It isn’t goblins, ghosts or
witches. It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of
the dark inside ourselves.
Dr Samuel Loomis
(Halloween II, Universal Pictures)
With its uncanny themes of life and death, the supernatu-
ral, transgression, alterity, abjection, masking, and doubling,
we have argued that the celebration of Halloween represents
both a unique mode of organization and a complex ethical
encounter. To observe this seasonable event requires one to
engage with, embody, and ‘play out’ a blend of historical
tradition, folklore and mysticism, corporate politics, popu-
lar culture, and fantasy fiction. It seems fitting at this point
then to engage in our own form of ostensive action by ask-
ing the reader to heed the advice of the fictional Dr Samuel
Loomis from the Halloween movie series, that participating
in Halloween (or its more ancient Celtic cousin Samhain)
is not to entertain or fear some external supernatural force,
but instead to encounter a darkness from within. Therefore,
in revisiting the incident of the ‘offensive’ mental patient
Halloween costumes, we have sought to explore the aes-
thetic and affective force of Halloween as an uncanny ethical
encounter with self/other, same/different, rather than as a
form of supernatural and moral transgression. As we have
argued, it is the conflation of morals and ethics that prevents
a more nuanced understanding and appreciation of our con-
tinued relationship with the uncanny as a part of organiza-
tional life. Halloween in particular is also a reminder that
commercialized expressions of our inner most fears might
have something to teach us about ourselves and world we
participate in and co-produce—but only if we are prepared
to engage with rather than seek to negate that which comes
to visit us during such rituals. Where Halloween once served
as an annual catharsis for ancient fears of the unknown, or
as an unsettling late-modern tension-management ritual
(Etzioni 2000), perhaps in the twenty-first century it now
serves as a further expression of Negri’s radical Unheim-
lich (Negri 1999). A magical sidh world of a different kind.
A hyper-masculinized and meticulous neoliberal economic
order in which we are all immersed and through which
we are required to engage with  complexassemblagesof
cultural and sexualized norms and stereotypes on a daily
basis-stereotypes that we have been taught to love, fear, and
consume via an exploitation of the Other.
Through our consideration of this case of Halloween
fancy dress and mental health, we have recommended an
alternative engagement with the commercialisation of hor-
ror and violence. Just as Barbara Creed seeks to reclaim
the power of the feminine in the slasher movie, the case
of the morally offensive Halloween costumes represents a
similar ethical call to engage with and take responsibility
for the other Others that are created as the uncanny double
against whom such costumes are designed to guard against.
These Others represent forms of alterity and impossibility
that challenge notions of sameness, normality, the healthy,
the ordinary and the accepted, but who are marginalized
here by a commercial celebration and justification of the
grotesque. Therefore, rather than treating the ‘escaped men-
tal patient’ Halloween costume incident as an unfortunate
isolated event, we have instead sought to demonstrate the
value of recognizing and welcoming the uncanny Other that
the celebration of Halloween could and should embody. By
being open to the possibility of the Other it then possible to
address more nuanced themes and questions overlooked in
the initial reporting of the scandal in the news media such as
why these particular costumes were made in the first place,
where the references and symbolism they draw on come
from and why they persist in popular culture. As uncomfort-
able (unheimlich) as it might be to posit such themes, par-
ticularly as they relate to the everyday lives of mental health
patients, healthcare workers, retailers, social and news media
outlets, such themes and questions are essential in challeng-
ing and potentially reconciling a complex ethical relation-
ship between the organization of normality and a continued
collective fascination with difference—expressed here in
terms of the macabre, the mysterious, and the monstrous.
Here we might also seek to resolve Etzioni’s (2000)
struggle in locating Halloween within a typology of pub-
lic ritual. For Halloween is a kind of tension-management
ritual, but it is one that is inherently uncanny and whose
purpose is ironically to resist categorization. Just as there is
never any finality or accomplishment of a pursuit of ethics in
organizations (Pullen and Rhodes 2014, p. 793), Halloween
is similarly a seasonal ethical reminder that there is never
any final relief from the tension that marks the boundaries
between same and difference, natural and supernatural, the
ordinary and monstrous, familiar and strange. Instead, by
setting aside the commercial desire to colonize and so tame
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113Halloween, Organization, andtheEthics ofUncanny Celebration
1 3
Halloween, we might be encouraged to learn to live with
tension and uncertainty by creating a generous (albeit dis-
ruptive) uncanny space of hospitality in which to receive,
understand, and so take responsibility for the others that are
invoked and expressed through collective fears and anxieties.
Finally, if as Negri argues we are fated to live with and so
reside within the ‘real illusion’ of aradical Unheimlich then
perhaps the starting point for any contemporary study or cel-
ebration of Halloween as organizational event should begin
by acknowledging the lessons taught to us by our favourite
ghost stories and horrormovies: that all things ‘uncanny’
have a habit of returning when you least expect them. From
here the uncertain greeting ‘Happy Halloween’ could be read
as an ethical callnot to fear, negate, or seek to profit from
this return, but instead to invite it in by making ourselves at
home with the unheimlich and in so doing to learn to enjoy
the disruptive organizational potential of the familiar made
strange, the homely made hostile.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of interest All authors declare that they have no conflict of
Ethical Approval This article does not contain any studies with human
participants or animals performed by any of the authors.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Crea-
tive Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creat iveco
mmons .org/licen ses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribu-
tion, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate
credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the
Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
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Women are depicted in revealing dress in the media and the depictions have costs such as objectification. Objectification theory explains that women in Westernized cultures are looked at, evaluated, and potentially objectified by others. Accordingly, objectifying gaze (by others) evokes self-objectification which has effects such as habitual body and appearance monitoring. According to the theory being objectified by others precedes self-objectification, which suggests that objectification by others could be more prevalent than self-objectification and potentially just as harmful. Researchers have found that self-objectification and other-objectification can be induced by revealing dress manipulations that vary in tightness or body coverage. We studied Halloween costumes as a site for objectification of others. In Study 1, 124 pairs of men’s and women’s Halloween costumes were content analyzed. Women’s costumes were significantly more revealing than men’s in tightness and body coverage. Since sexual objectification in the media is assessed by the presence of revealing dress in media depictions, we reasoned that women’s revealing Halloween costumes could be sexually objectifying. In Study 2, 295 participants rated women wearing revealing or non-revealing costumes in an online experiment. Women wearing revealing costumes were sexually objectified by participants. Although men rated costumed women higher on the sexually objectifying traits than women, both men and women objectified the costumed women in the revealing dress condition. Dress researchers may wish to apply objectification theory to re-interpret and explain early research on revealing dress.
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