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The Ethics of Wearing an Ebola Costume for Halloween

5 minute read

It’s that time of year again. Those last few weeks in October when everyone frantically tries to come up with a winning Halloween costume—some magical combination of topical yet funny, sexy but not desperate, and clever without being opaque. A costume that promises to be a conversation starter at any party, making you impossibly alluring by displaying both your charming wit and your physical attractiveness.

So what is the must-have getup this season, along with Elsa from Frozen and the superhero mainstays?


As in, Ebola doctors, Ebola patients and Ebola zombies. The New York Post’s Oct. 15 cover declared Ebola disease suits the “hot” costume this year, begging the question of what a “sexy” Ebola doc might look like. And then begging the question of if we even want to know the answer.

The prospect of this costume going viral, shall we say, has some people crying ‘too soon.’ “Normally I think that irony and humor is funny, but this thing with the costumes, is it really that funny?” Maria Mckenna, a physician’s assistant in Philadelphia, asked the Associated Press. “I mean, Ebola’s not even under control yet.”

On the other hand, Jonathan Weeks, chief executive of BrandsOnSale, which is selling a full Ebola containment suit costume for $79.99, told the Associated Press that he doesn’t want to “stray away from anything that’s current or controversial.” That, after all, is what generates buzz. The Ebola suit was the most shared item on his site.

So how do you navigate the treacherous waters of the Ebola Halloween costume? (Or, rather, the treacherous contagious bodily fluids?) Is dressing up like this tacky, tasteless, too soon – offensive to the thousands who have died from the disease and the thousands more who stand to? Is it ethical?

Or instead is it actually the perfect costume? A seamless mixture of contemporary, provocative, sexy (if you decide to go that route) and genuinely terrifying in a way that the usual cast of Halloween ghosts and witches can never hope to be?

I decided to ask an expert to weigh in.

Kathryn Getek Soltis, Director of the Center for Peace and Justice Education and Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Villanova University, said she finds the Ebola costumes “rather disturbing.”

“It allows people to stay far from the situation and not to imagine the human suffering that’s actually occurring,” she said. “The issue isn’t that you’re a bad person because you have an insensitive costume, it’s that actually you’re closing yourself and the people around you off from trying to understand how you might be able to participate in this issue in a way that affects people’s lives.”

She clarified, “I don’t want folks to think being ethical means you can’t be fun. I think there are lots of things to laugh about. But… this isn’t funny.”

With the resounding ‘no’ of the expert ethical opinion in hand, I took to the Twittersphere to look for reactions on the other side.

Good points, all.

Weeks, of BrandsOnSale, recently told the Atlantic, “You can go on any website for a zombie mask for an eight-year-old with cuts and scars all over their face. It’s Halloween, it’s one day, if people are that serious about it, they don’t know what Halloween is about.”

But Soltis thinks this commercialized spookiness is part of the issue. “I always am nervous of ways that we use ghoulishness and horror as a way to distance ourselves from humanity,” she said. “And certainly the images we see from the Ebola crisis look like something out of this world, otherworldly, when you see some of the protective gear people are wearing. But that’s exactly the problem. It’s just about creating more barriers from being able to empathize.”

So here we’ve reached an impasse. Of course wearing an Ebola protective suit on Halloween is in some sense trivializing the work of the real Ebola doctors, cheapening their life-saving uniform to a kitschy costume. But on the other hand, to say this trivialization is truly damaging in a moral sense may be giving too much weight to a frivolous, self-consciously provocative holiday. In the end, of course, it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth the potential backlash to dance to Monster Mash in your Hazmat suit on October 31st.

But I will say this: if all these passions are ignited by the thought of dressing as an Ebola health worker, maybe think twice about being a sexy Ebola zombie. There’s a line here somewhere, and I’m pretty sure it’s around “dead” and “slutty.”

Writing that last sentence made me very happy that Halloween only comes once a year.

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Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.Rogers@time.com