By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When a Donald Trump look-alike and a faux Caitlyn Jenner ring the doorbell on Halloween night, they may solicit a piece of candy but the treat they really seek is recognition.
Pop culture experts say these "ripped from the headlines" costumes to celebrate the Oct. 31 holiday - such as "El Chapo" the fugitive Mexican cartel kingpin or "Left Shark" from pop star Katy Perry's Super Bowl halftime show - are a way for adults to connect in a world splintered by a myriad of choices for information and entertainment.
While children typically dress up as witches and ghosts, the most popular costume this year among adults shopping on Yandy.com is The Optical Illusion Dress, the subject of an online debate that went viral over its color. The hot seller is a compromise: half blue and black, half white and gold, said CEO Chad Horstman.
Also in high demand is Pizza Rat - a gray mini dress with a tail, hood, ears and two pepperoni pizza slice pockets - that is arguably sexier than the video of a New York City rat dragging a pizza slice down subway steps, shared more than 100,000 times on Twitter in the last month, according to Topsy.com.
The lion-slaying dentist Walter Palmer of Minnesota who gained notoriety for his trophy kill of Cecil the Lion, considered a national treasure in Zimbabwe, inspired a $139.99 getup from Costumeish.com, complete with a blood spattered dental smock and mock lion head.
"It used to be we all watched the same TV shows, we all knew the same cultural references. Now the culture is really fragmented," said Robert Thompson, who teaches pop culture at Syracuse University in upstate New York. "These news stories, the ones that hit the big time, that cross that point of penetration, those are the things that everybody shares."
Jim Von Schilling, the Pennsylvania-based area chairman of the Popular Culture Association, said when it comes to envisioning a Halloween costume, imaginations are sparked by current events.
"The world around us is our pop culture," said Von Schilling.
LIMITS TO POKING FUN
The costumes are meant to touch a nerve, but some vendors say there are lines they will not cross.
Ricky's NYC, a beauty supply store that features Halloween costumes, and Yandy.com both decided against carrying a Caitlyn Jenner costume featuring a shiny white padded bustier resembling the outfit the Olympic gold medalist and reality TV star formerly known as Bruce wore to come out as transgender in a Vanity Fair cover story.
"The transgender community is a huge portion of my customer base and is incredibly offended by this," said Richard Parrott, president of Ricky's. "I don't really see anything funny about somebody wanting to change their gender. There is no place to really poke fun."
Jenner told NBC News last month that she did not find the costume offensive: "I'm in on the joke... I think it's great."
Politicians are typically fair game and Ricky's carries a Hillary Clinton mask and Yandy a Donald Trump costume consisting of a white collared shirt, red tie, royal blue blazer and "booty shorts" with extra accessories including a "Making America Great" hat and a straw colored "comb over politician wig."
Halloween costumes that snark rather than spook tend to focus on figures who have fallen from grace, said Jack Santino, who teaches popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
"They are people who were kind of ridiculous and there is a kind of 'Emperor Has No Clothes' element," Santino said. "At Halloween, people just mock them to say, 'We all know you're ridiculous. You’re not fooling anyone.'"
Irreverent Halloween costumes tend to be worn by adults but some parents, seizing on the natural tendency of babies to look like old men, have been dressing their infants as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, with eyeglasses and unruly white wigs, posting their pictures to Twitter as #BabiesForBernie.
Ready-made costumes can be expensive but for frugal Trick or Treaters there is a free online makeup tutorial that a cosmetologist posted on Instagram with tips for looking like Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue same-same marriage licenses.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone and Marguerita Choy)