Sigh: Busch Gardens removes disembodied heads from Halloween display

I tell you verily, there will always be overly sensitive blowhards and busybodies among us. All we can control is how we react, as a society, to said blowhards and busybodies. At Busch Gardens, they’re doing it wrong.

This weekend, a front-page photo on the Williamsburg, Virginia Gazette got a handful of complaints. The picture was of a group of fake severed heads, used as props in Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s annual Howl-O-Scream celebration, which includes as one might imagine, creepy Halloween decorations. The severed heads are cartoonish and clearly fake, as are most creepy Halloween decorations. The picture of them no longer accompanies the news story in question, but this is a small version I found in a search of the paper’s archives.

In light of recent beheadings by terrorist group ISIS of American and British citizens, several readers of the Gazette objected to the photo, and its placement on the front page of the local paper:

In a report in Saturday’s Virginia Gazette, a front-page photo showed a group of five severed heads that was part of the Cut Throat Cove attraction in the park’s fall makeover for Halloween. The display was not made to look realistic.

The first of a handful of complaints was sent to the paper late Saturday night, about three hours after media outlets began reporting that the terrorist group Islamic State had posted a new video claiming to have beheaded British aid worker David Haines. Another four or five were sent Sunday, all to an email account for anonymous Last Word comment section.

Gazette Editor Rusty Carter defended use of the image.

“The photo was taken last week as part of an assignment to preview a current exhibit. The figures are cartoonish in design, and do not look realistic. It is the job of our reporters and photographers to report and photograph the news, not censor it.”

Of the six complaints the Gazette printed in its “Last Word” section, many deal more with the news judgment of the paper for putting the image on the front page in light of recent events than with the appropriateness of the display at Busch Gardens itself.

“Even the Busch Gardens’ website indicates that Hall O scream may not be suitable to young children yet the Gazette choose to show the most gruesome and horrific type of picture on the front. Busch Gardens may want to reconsider this scene in light of the journalists that lost their lives to ISIS,” wrote one reader.

“Who at the Gazette made the decision to feature the graphic, full-color photo of simulated severed heads lining a corridor at Cut Throat Cove, on the front page, no less?,” another wrote.

If I were a local editor, I would likely have picked a more lighthearted photo that didn’t bring to mind any real-world horrors to pass the cornflake test— the name given the discipline of keeping too much explicit gore from gracing one’s readers’ kitchen tables during breakfast.

But because of this very, very slight outcry over the front-page photo and the paper’s subsequent coverage of it, Busch Gardens decided to remove the display from Howl-O-Scream, despite the fact that the exhibit was designed and chosen before any of the recent beheadings.

“Many of the scenes depicted at Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream are graphic in nature, but they are fictional and are not intended to provide commentary on current world events. The props in this year’s event were designed and purchased several months ago.”

The park then announced it would remove several props as having “the unintended consequence of appearing insensitive.” A spokesman did not respond to a query about other props that were removed.

It’s not as if this is the centerpiece of the park or the only display of deliberately gross ghoulishness at a Halloween event. Such an event in a park of this size is characterized by thousands of creepy vignettes, and this is one of them. I’m all for not being a jerk, but whose feelings are we sparing, here? A handful of people who write letters to the editor and a handful who might find a creepy Halloween display slightly more unsettling than usual because of current events, and complain on Twitter? Couldn’t they just have their say, on the Internet or the pages of the paper, we could note their complaints as a society, Busch Gardens could say no offense was meant, and we could move on? Why must ACTION BE TAKEN? Not every complaint is worthy of ACTION BEING TAKEN. There are occasions where it is appropriate, of course, but this seems to fall short of that line.

What are we accomplishing? Do we think, say, James Foley’s mother or the Sotloffs are being spared any pain because Busch Gardens removed disembodied heads from a Halloween display? If I thought they might be, the argument would be stronger, though I’m still not sure I’d be in favor of removal.

This is the tyranny of tiny people with a tiny number of complaints. We shouldn’t be ruled by them. And, in this particular case, do we really want our totally standard, time-honored features of all-in-fun Halloween displays to be determined by whatever barbarism ISIS decides to engage in?

Unfortunately for Busch Gardens, our society incentivizes them to jump at the first indication someone might have taken offense. The offended people are the few and the loud. But there is no mobilized, counterbalancing Coalition of People Who Would Like Them to Take a Chill Pill, which is basically everyone else.

At least the Busch Gardens Williamsburg fan blog (yep!) is with me, and offers a PC guide to gory Halloween decorations.