It’s that time of year again—the leaves change, the weather cools down, and the night, which has been coming earlier and earlier since the end of June finally reaches back and asserts itself to darkness before dinnertime. This time of year really seems to excite people for a number of reasons, but, one of the biggest is that these changes signify the coming of Halloween, one of America’s most beloved and largest commercial holiday of the year.
Hallows Eve or Halloween as we know it today began in the 1920s and 1930s as the rise of trick-or-treating from door to door, house to house, and the widespread use of the phrase itself came into popularity, so, it is a relatively new passion in the American holiday consciousness. But, despite its relatively young age in the U.S., Halloween has certainly made its impact. Millions of kids trick-or-treat each year. Horror movies made over $1B last year—largely in part to the smash success of IT—but the more routine number is still upwards of $500M annually. Here’s a page with over 500 Halloween costume and decoration ideas—and this is just one of a countless volume dedicated to people dressing in costumes and crafting. We love this stuff; that’s more than clear. So the question I want to try and answer is: “Why? Why do blood and guts, ghosts and ghouls, skeletons, vampires, zombies, lycanthropes of all types, why do we find them so appealing? What is it inside of us that’s being triggered that’s conflating fear and fun?”
Fear and Fun Are Practically the Same Thing…
When you are looking for a scare, that is.
Similar to how people will seek out the chemical burn of spicy food, we will seek out the adrenal rush of being frightened. Much like how we will call spicy food delicious, we will call these frights exciting and fun—we will twist the negative aspects of the reality into a positive because, like with those hot wings, sometimes a little bit of bad can feel like a whole lot of good.
Daniel Kelly, a professor of philosophy at Purdue University simply puts it this way, “We might go to a movie to get the vicarious thrill of being stalked by Mike Myers or bitten by a vampire, but it's really just a movie. We have this desire to flirt with danger or feel a rush that spills into many aspects of our lives, even if the emotional voltage has a slightly negative valence…There are some feelings that are manifestly unpleasant when they come in large doses, but many people actively seek out and enjoy in smaller, more controlled spurts…The main reason many love Halloween is that, people can experience a good scare without being at risk of real danger.”
But, this actually goes beyond the philosophical too. There is a neurological, biological response in the human brain when it comes to fear, and it’s shockingly similar to the response to excitement. As neurologist Dr. Katherine Brownlowe writes, “Recent studies have concluded that there are also higher-order cognitive contributions to fear and anxiety, which previously were poorly understood as they were not able to be seen in animal models. People worry about and fear many more complex things than animals…These fears come from the more central part of the brain, including the amygdala…Sometimes fear can be fun, like in a haunted house or a scary movie: You cognitively know that you’re in a safe situation, but you can tickle your amygdala response a bit and many people consider that to be a good time.”
It’s clear that there is a direct biological and psychological connection between the excitement we feel in a pleasurable environment and the excitement we feel in scaring ourselves when we want a good scare, but that can’t be the whole Halloween pie, can it? What are some of the other pieces?
The Childhood Power of Trick-or-Treating
For many of us, the Halloween obsession begins as children, and probably with a deep fondness for candy. But, then, why does this fondness persist into adulthood when the candy becomes less important, when we can just go to a store and buy all the candy we want? The answer is rooted in the power afforded to us as children as trick-or-treaters. Though few of us actually play tricks, and with obvious favor toward the treats, there is power in the idea that we could play tricks. That we could, for a night, be on a playing field more level than the adults that normally dominate our childhood lives.
So, we wish to control the outcome of something or someone. The very idea of "tricking" has the implicit idea of getting one over on another and therefore being triumphant. What great satisfaction we feel when the other doesn't suspect it. We drum up clever plans to "get" the other person and we can't wait with anticipation. Our hearts race, we sweat, and blood rushes to our faces in anticipation. The same happens to the person on the other side of the trick. We conflate the fun and the frightening again, but this time in a way that’s reverse of watching a horror film; where, instead of a real fear being rendered harmless by the barrier between fiction and reality, the harmless is rendered real by possibility of their being a real trick carried out by the “powerless” on the “powerful”. This helps cement our fondness for the holiday in our minds, because, as we associate wearing costumes, being scared with being excited, we come to associate being the one doing the scaring with the same psychic reaction and emotional subset.
And Maybe It’s Just the Way It’s Meant to Be
Ultimately, however, our October 31 is just one holiday in the continuum of harvest-time festivals, masquerades, and events where the primary goal is to scare someone else, scare yourself, and have fun while it’s all happening. There is a long history of this behavior in people, across time and culture, from one continent to the next, so, maybe we really are just wired to enjoy a good scare every now and then.
Maybe it is just that simple.