FULLERTON — Call it bad taste or just plain gross, but one of the hottest-selling Halloween items in the country is a mask bearing the likeness of murder suspect O.J. Simpson.
Ragztop-Vintage, a costume shop on Commonwealth Avenue here, received its first shipment earlier this week and promptly sold out, said store manager Victor Pahl, who noted Friday that a fresh order of the vinyl masks--which go for $20 each--is again selling fast.
In San Diego, a seasonal costume shop called The Halloween Warehouse has back-ordered another brand of Simpson masks, of which owner Bill Harold expects to sell more than 100 priced at $49 each. Harold said "the O.J. mask" is a big seller throughout the United States.
But the attempt by merchants here and elsewhere to capitalize on a pair of the country's most notorious homicides goes beyond even the mask, which alone is enough to offend sociologists and others who see the trend as a disturbing aspect of American culture.
"This reminds me of people cheering O.J. from the overpasses during his infamous Friday night drive," said Gordon Clanton, a sociologist at San Diego State University. "As society becomes less and less clear about right and wrong, people are more swept up into entertainment generally. And these days, people live through entertainment in a powerful way."
Evidence of the Simpson case as entertainment appears to be turning up in a full line of Halloween gear.
Step In Time, a costume shop in Laguna Niguel, is planning to rent black-and-white prison shirts with Simpson's No. 32--the football great's jersey number--emblazoned on the back.
"I've had calls about blond 'Nicole wigs' (a reference to Simpson's ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson), dark makeup, Afro wigs, big butcher knives and, of course, the O.J. mask," said Dena Teeter, the manager of Step In Time.
Even trick-or-treaters overseas appear to be clamoring for the O.J. line.
"A woman came in this week wanting to send a bunch of this stuff to Japan, because all her Japanese friends wanted it," Teeter said.
Ragztop in Fullerton, like stores throughout the country, is also selling jerseys similar to the kind Simpson wore with the USC Trojans and the Buffalo Bills--only these are splattered with fake blood, and for legal reasons bear No. 69 instead.
But Teeter at Step In Time said her store goes even further than that.
"If anybody with blond hair wants to do Nicole, we're also selling prosthetic slit throats," Teeter said, noting that such items were available in the past.
Harold, the San Diego outfitter, said blond "Nicole wigs" are "hot sellers" in tandem with the O.J. mask, and that both are being bought by adult couples to wear at Halloween parties.
The Rental Boutique in Santa Ana is selling a facsimile of Simpson's USC jersey, bearing not only fake blood but also a Hertz Rent-a-Car agreement printed on the shirt. Simpson formerly worked as a celebrity spokesman for Hertz in its TV commercials.
"We've also ordered plenty of Afro wigs," Vicki Gaon, the store manager, said. "And we're selling blond wigs as well. In my opinion, it's all in really bad taste, but I had to get in on it because everyone else is."
Other merchants agree with the first part of Gaon's statement--it's in such bad taste that they vehemently refuse to take part, profits be damned.
A spokeswoman for Costumes Galore, a costume shop in Orange, and who asked not to be quoted by name, said her store had received "tons of calls about O.J. paraphernalia, but we thought it was just too tacky. In fact, we think it's in awfully poor taste."
But still other merchants admit to being envious. They tried to get the O.J. mask and couldn't.
"We had plenty of customers who were interested, so we inquired to see if they were available," said Astrid Hickey, the owner of Astrid's Costume Attic in Buena Park. "Do you know where we can get them?"
Pahl, who sells the Simpson mask at Ragztop, said that only men appear interested. He sold one to a man in his late 50s but most of the others to men in their early 20s. He wasn't sure of the exact number sold but said "more than a dozen, and we just got them in. Besides, it's still very early in the Halloween season. We expect to completely sell out, meaning dozens more."
One manufacturer of the masks is Cesar Inc. of New York City. Susann Eaton, the president of the company, said that she had not originally intended the mask to be sold as O.J. Simpson's likeness, "although I'm now aware that thousands of them are being sold as exactly that--but that's the seller's choice, not mine.
"We make a mask of a generic African-American male," Eaton said. "We know that thousands of these are selling as O.J., but we never intended it to be O.J. What are you going to do? People are funny. When something is in the news, they go a little bit crazy. They can use the mask for what they want."
Eaton noted that "plenty of other companies"--which she declined to name--are manufacturing Simpson masks and selling them as exactly that.