This past weekend was our annual family Halloween party; we had 35 or 40 people here with 12 or 14 of them kids. I had the yard, but especially the woods, decorated with my ever growing collection of scary Halloween props: figures, lights, animatronics, and of course the zombie cemetery! I think I am up to ten storage containers for it all plus some that hang in the workshop year round. Making the yard and woods bigger, better, and scarier than the previous year is a big deal to me and being retired for this one gave me lots of time to get ready. And as I have the outside, Teri has the inside and does a phenomenal job – the artist in her comes out everywhere.
There were shrieks of fright and joy, laughter, and general chaos both inside and outside for several hours; everyone had a great time, but especially the kids most of whom were cousins. While it was all about family, it was also about Halloween – about being a little scared, a little creeped out, and a little uncertain about what was behind the next tree. Lurking in the shadows and hanging from the trees were ghosts, phantoms, jumping spiders, jack o’ lanterns, zombies, clowns, and assorted frights. Some moaned, some screamed, some talked, while others jumped or twitched, all designed to build layer upon layer of fear. Just not too much fear. It is difficult to find a delicate balance between being fun scary and being terrifying. The idea is to scare them all without truly scaring them and that can be quite challenging, especially given a wide swath of ages – from two to ten in this case.
As I worked on it, I kept mulling over why we love to be scared. Horror movies are huge sellers at the box office and temporary Halloween stores spring up by the hundreds in September and October. Being scared generates big dollars for business. There are haunted houses, hayrides, and mazes all designed to take people right to the absolute razor’s edge of their tolerance for fear without actually crossing it. And sometimes they do cross the line, it is really unrealistic to think you can create a level of fear that will satisfy all without taking some too far. Like anything else, people have varying levels of tolerance for fear and there are always those that will not be able to handle it, ending up crying and shaking and needing to be helped out of the situation. I’ve seen it play out time and time again for years; people walking out of a movie, being escorted out of a haunted house, etc. And at the same time, others are left unfulfilled and unsatisfied, almost ho-humming their way through the frights, left wanting more – a higher level of fear. But why?
There are a lot of theories on why we like to scare ourselves; postulations abound on the science behind it. There are as many ideas on the “why” as there are demons, spirits, and witches in a Halloween store. For example, there are numerous hormones released during moments of extreme fear, thrills and chills produce a physiological affect that is unique and highly pleasurable to humans. Consider the thrill-seekers who drive fast, ride motorcycles, skydive, ride insanely intense roller coasters, bungee jump, and so forth. They love the adrenaline rush that comes with pushing the limit of fear. Doing so in a “safe” environment is the best of both worlds; you can be as scared as your psyche can manage while the cognitive side of your brain can reassure and relax you that you are actually safe because what you are experiencing is not truly real. And that dampens, if not actually shutting down, the fight or flight survival mechanism in us, allowing us to steep in the experience. And that provides a level of internal satisfaction – accomplishment. We beat it, we handled it, and we conquered it. And with that comes more hormonal gratification. We feast on facing fear.
While not as widely accepted as is the chemical theories on fear, I am a firm believer in the self-test aspect of facing fear. It is a challenge, a test, to see what you can face and how much you can manage. Everything is a challenge to compete to competitive people, everything. And these folks find a million ways to compete and measure themselves against others in almost every life activity you can think of including haunted houses, ghost tours, and scary movies. Look around while in a haunted house or during a scary move sometime; I can almost guarantee you that you will see at least a couple of people looking around to see how much more scared others are than they are; assessing the competition. The fear competitors want, need, to know how strong and how brave they really are in the face of fear; it is a test of fortitude.
There is also the association, the reconnection, to the past – the fables, legends, tales, and myths of our ancestors, many of which we grew up believing and then rapidly waning as our cognitive abilities and life experiences cast the shadow of reality and doubt upon them. We cling to a shred of hope that some of them may possibly be real and leap at any chance to bolster that hope, to prove it true and real. We essentially walk in the shoes of our forefathers, battling the werewolves on the moor and the ghosts in the woods as they did. It is a continuity of the past and of our history. It hearkens back to wizards and dragons, to witches and warlocks, to werewolves and vampires, and to ghosts and goblins – to a time we believed in and we want to know how e would have fared alongside our ancestors.
When we indulge and the fear comes fast and furious and forcefully, the fright envelops us and buoys us to a surreal level we never otherwise see in our daily lives; it is a respite. But for children? For them it is about learning who they are, about understanding their options in a terrifying moment, and about investigating their still undeveloped psyche. It is easy to overload them – they do not yet have the skills to discern between a safe scare and truly bad situation and will invariably be damaged, at least to some extent, if the fear becomes too deep or intense. But done right, it opens them to a new world of excitement and discovery. Think otherwise? Please go back and read the old classic fairy tales; but read the originals, not the rewrites – some of them, many of them, are extremely dark and frightening.
Halloween is of course, seated in the religious camp being the night before All Saints Day, or All Hallows Eve. The current date goes back to the Celts – the Gaelic festival of Samhaim was held on October 31 because it not only marked the change of the seasons, but the Celts believed that the boundary between our world and the after world was weakened during this time allowing them the best chance to communicate with the dead. As all societies do, each generation morphed the holiday into their own, weaving in current beliefs and ideas. Components of the celebration changed, were added, or were removed over the generations, but with the root concepts of a connection with other-world and the dead remaining.
I have always loved Halloween with a passion. My favorite movie genre is horror; I think the 1978 Halloween might be the best movie ever made. (Side note, do a search on the production of this movie, there are some amazing facts on how they saved costs such as the iconic Michael Myers mask which was actually a Captain Kirk (Star Trek) mask that they bought in a Five and Dime store and painted, and that they had one bag of brown leaves that they carefully spread out for each scene and then collected to use again the next day since it wasn’t fall during the filming.) I of course loved the classics: Frankenstein and Dracula and especially Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. And Halloween brought all that and more into the real world for one day a year. I can remember walking through the woods during Halloween night as a shortcut to trick or treat when really it was just an opportunity to scare myself and to test the cut of my cloth….and perhaps just a little bit to see if maybe, just maybe, there was something more to Halloween night than costumes and candy.
I used to look forward to October coming because you could find horror movies on all night, every night. Remember that for much of my life, there was no streaming video, no on demand movies, and even after VHS came along, you needed to rent or buy the tape to watch it. But Halloween month meant horror movies all month long. The bad part was that I worked all day and needed to be in bed no later than 11pm so I was limited to maybe four hours viewing time on any given night. Now retired, in the last I’ve been up watching horror movies past 1am several times – it’s been great!
So please enjoy this scary holiday dear reader. Watch some horror movies with the lights out; go out and scare yourself; visit a graveyard at night. Savor the fear and the adrenaline and once it is over, enjoy a piece of candy! Happy Halloween!!