Last year, some Johns Hopkins University fraternity members raised the ire of other classmates by staging a "Halloween in the Hood" party, complete with "bling bling," "hoochie hoops" and a pirate hanging from a noose. Also last year, at the University of Pennsylvania, a student who was dressed as an "Arab suicide bomber" caused a major online discussion about matters of taste.
This year, a sexy "Anna Rexia" costume has caused a firestorm of criticism among eating disorder experts, feminists, bloggers and others.
What is it about Halloween that - in addition to ghosts, goblins and witches - brings out demons of another kind: rudeness, insensitivity, bias and prejudice?
"This is an opportunity. You can put people down, you can shock people," says Frank Farley, a psychologist at Philadelphia's Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association. "Events where you can semi-disguise yourself or feel a loosening of restraint - a feeling of 'anything goes' - then some of our prejudices can come out in those conditions where they wouldn't in our everyday life."
Lisa Wade, assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, says that Halloween costumes "are an excellent measure of who it's still OK to hate or belittle."
Many adult Halloween costumes poke fun at other social, cultural, sexual or class-related topics as well: homeless people, pimps, pedophiles or private parts.
But few in the eating-disorder community think that "Anna Rexia," a black minidress emblazoned with a glittering skeleton graphic that includes a tape-measure belt to accentuate the waistline, is funny or sexy. The outfit is being sold for $42.95 on the Web site 3Wishes.com.
"I personally am offended by it," says Harry Brandt, director of the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, who became aware of the costume this month when a co-worker pointed it out to him online. "We don't make costumes about people who have cancer or people who have developmental disabilities. Why would we make a costume about the most serious of psychiatric disorders with one of the highest death rates? It's pretty pathetic."
The costume highlights just how lightly some in society take eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, which is characterized by a fear of gaining weight, self-starvation and a distorted view of body image.
Phone and e-mail messages to 3Wishes.com about the costume were not returned. Another Web site, HalloweenStreet.com, had been selling the costume but took it down.
Over the past three weeks, bloggers and Web-posters have been discussing the Anna Rexia costume and its social implications - most of them, critically.
Leslie Goldman, author of Locker Room Diaries: The Naked Truth About Women, Body Image, and Re-Imagining the "Perfect" Body, blogged about the Anna Rexia get-up on The Huffington Post, blasting the costume for being "so offensive" and "so ridiculous."
"Yes, Halloween costumes exist to poke fun at many, many different people or cultures or events, but to make fun of a disease, especially a psychological disease that kills people, it's just tacky and rather heartless," Goldman, 31, says in an interview.
Some readers of Goldman's blog ridiculed her perspective for being too serious. But Goldman says she likes a good laugh just as much as the next trick-or-treater - just not at the expense of someone with a potentially fatal disease.
The costume touched a nerve with Goldman, particularly because she suffered from anorexia as a college student, losing 30 pounds in three months.
"I have a sense of humor," Goldman says. "I've definitely dressed up like Britney Spears, or Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson. I've done the sexy-costume thing. But this just feeds into the cultural idea that being very, very, very, very thin is sexy, when anorexia is pretty much the antithesis of sexy."
Wade, who is founder of Sociological Images: Seeing is Believing, a blog for academics and others who are interested in images that help communicate sociological concepts, posted a picture last week of the Anna Rexia costume to spark conversation about it.
"The sexualization of anorexia is one of the most troubling things about this costume," Wade says, making reference to the fact that the woman modeling the costume online is cartoonishly buxom. "If anorexia is, in part, an extreme example of the requirement that women's bodies be pleasing to men, then this costume makes women's [self-]subordination sexy."
But some bloggers think the costume - though offensive - should not be taken quite so seriously.
"It's sort of just taking the ultra-sexy Halloween costume to its logical extreme," says Carol Lloyd, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who wrote about the Anna Rexia costume for Salon .com's women's issues blog, Broadsheet.
"As Halloween costumes go, this one is pretty scary. But there is sort of an impulse at Halloween to break taboos or to be as offensive as possible. I couldn't see getting truly outraged. There's way too many things to get outraged about that are in real life," Lloyd says.
Many were outraged after the Hopkins' Sigma Chi Fraternity brothers hosted the "Halloween in the Hood" party last year: Members of the school's Black Student Union protested the party, and the university eventually suspended the chapter. And the University of Pennsylvania student dressed as an Arab suicide bomber caused a buzz among bloggers and a condemnation from the college's president who said she was offended by it.