Asda's apology: What on earth can have possessed it?

'Mental' costumes show how quickly we tend to dismiss the unfamiliar

Share
Related Topics

Since Thursday, when first Asda then Tesco withdrew Halloween fancy dress costumes depicting mental health patients as deranged killers the furore has lost none of its spark. Alastair Campbell and Stan Collymore piled in. Jack Dee announced he's bought his Halloween costume – he's going as MD of Asda.

And yet – these fancy dress costumes wouldn't have been marketed if they didn't tap into something deep. Last week's pain and upset is just the latest episode in a nasty but little noted thread in history – the horror and repulsion which may be aroused by people whose thoughts, feelings and experiences we fear are different from our own and are, therefore, unpredictable. Where the difference is so extreme that people hear voices or see visions, for example, we become extremely uncomfortable. When early European settlers encountered a different form of consciousness in native peoples, the result was shameful.

History also shows that religion is often tied up with this horror of different types of consciousness, and this is true even in the case of the fancy dress fiasco. On the surface, Halloween is a chance for tacky retail promotions, but underneath it is an ancient religious festival.

The period from the autumn equinox to 2 November has traditionally been seen as a time when the membrane between the everyday world and the spirit world dissolves and spirits and demons walk the earth: the Celtic festival of Samhain, the Mexican Day of the Dead and, according to Robert Kirk, a pupil of Robert Boyle, who conducted a scientific survey of supernatural experiences in the Scottish Highlands at the end of the 17th century, a time when people would not go outdoors for fear of being attacked by tribes of "Subterraneans".

Boyle and Kirk were, like their contemporary Sir Isaac Newton, pioneers of a scientific revolution, and as scientific thought hardened into a materialism that left no room for God, angels and the spirits of the dead, many came to see the sorts of experiences that Kirk's highlanders described as delusions. Henry Maudsley, founder of the famous psychiatric hospital, wrote that spiritual leaders, including Mohamed, St Paul and Charles Wesley, experienced visions because they were epileptic. Only this week a neurologist at Bologna University proposed that Dante's visions were the result of narcolepsy.

From the standpoint of atheism, all experiences of the supernatural must be either delusional or fraudulent, and this applies to Jesus and St Francis as well as modern visionaries such as the Irish mystic Lorna Byrne.

But as I've tried to show in my new book, altered states of consciousness, in which the subject believes he or she is guided by supernatural intelligence, is not confined to narrowly religious fields. Great leaps forward in science, politics and warfare have often come about as a result of experiences which seem to defy rational explanation, whether the "daemons" that mentored Socrates and Jung, the Swedenborgian mysticism that guided Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King or the alchemical inspirations of Newton and Nicholas Tesla's invention of his coil, generating an alternating current. By the standard of atheistic psychiatry, these people were all either mad or at the least suffered psychotic episodes.

Perhaps the lesson of the Asda furore is this: on race, generation, gender and sexual orientation we have made great progress. But there is one grouping that cuts across all the others where we need to start moving forward, and that is toleration between different forms of consciousness.

Jonathan Black's new book 'The Sacred History' is published by Quercus

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A street in Rotherham, where the Jay report has exposed the abuse of 1400 children  

Rotherham child sexual abuse scandal - the lessons: We need solutions, not scapegoats

Paul Vallely
 

No menu! Dining doesn't get posher than this

Dom Joly
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution