A Psychologist’s Perspective on Halloween
The History and Psychology of Halloween (The Holiday, Not the Movie)
Here in Charlotte, NC it’s reached the upper 80’s in October and we had a bout of terrible humidity that evokes the type of industrial, steam-heavy environs where one might just find Freddy Krueger skulking about. I would prefer more seasonably appropriate crisp, chill air that condenses your breath so you can pretend to be one of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons spewing hellfire or perhaps imitating Godzilla’s atomic breath (I mean, who HASN’T done that, amIright?)
Even though the weather in the South may not be in agreement with the calendar on most days, we’re still being inundated with all things Pumpkin Spice. That’s not a complaint, mind you, but honestly, do we really need Pumpkin Spice Pasta – BLECH!!! There are certainly other markers that Halloween is inching ever closer, ready to close in on us. General Mills has unleashed its line of monster cereals including Franken Berry, Count Chocula, and Boo Berry.
Major department stores have put up their displays full of spooky decorations and all manner of costumes. I think it’s fair to assume candy consumption is up, including the inevitable (some might say dreaded) Candy Corn. It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, Halloweentown, and Hocus Pocus are among the many Halloween-friendly content showing up on TVs. Major theme parks like Knotts Berry Farm, Bush Gardens, and Carowinds, to name a few, are scarifying their décor and transforming into their October iterations Knotts Scary Farm, Howl-O-Scream, and Scarowinds.
There are visits to the pumpkin patch, hayrides, and corn mazes. I guess the question on my mind lately has been “Why?”
More specifically, “What is it about Halloween that has enabled it to endure as a cultural holiday staple?”
The historical underpinnings of what was originally known as All Hallow’s Eve are somewhat unclear in that it may have derived from seasonal Celtic harvest festivals with pagan roots, such as the Gaelic festival Samhain, or “Summer’s end” in Old Irish. However, it might also have emerged from a Christian holiday that honored saints and prayed for the souls of the departed in exchange for “Soul Cakes” so that such ghostly entities might let go of any inclination to linger or find vengeance and thus begin their ascent to Heaven.
Suffice to say there seem to be enough parallels to suggest that multiple sources co-contributed in some way and any scholar or historian trying to peg Halloween’s origin as exclusively one or the other may just be contending for bragging rights.
So anyway, at the close of October it was important to some Irish and Welsh folks to demarcate the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker days of winter. It seems that this transitional time was believed to be special in that it opened the door to the spiritual realm. It is for this reason that observers of the holiday would offer up food and drink, or portions of crops, to appease the dead and ensure good fortune lies ahead.
As part of the festival proceedings, people came to adorn themselves in costumes meant to resemble the souls of the dead, perhaps to trick them, and would go door-to-door reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. Aside from the symbolism of it all, these revelers seemed to believe that such costuming protected them from the mischievous and sometimes malignant roaming souls of that night.
It can be argued that the human tendency towards consistency drives immigrant populations to import their customs, so naturally the Irish and Welsh brought over their Halloween traditions. For the “tired” and “poor”, the “huddled masses”, and “wretched refuse” of far-off lands, the culture shock was likely much more striking before the rest of the world became so Westernized. While trying to assimilate and make a life for themselves in the unfamiliar Land of the Free, the Irish and Welsh were also trying to bring a bit of home with them.
It seems inevitable that, as these cultures integrated into our melting pot, certain ingredients proved more popular with the locals. And really, what’s not to like about carving faces on turnips (err, pumpkins), bonfires, bobbing for apples, and dressing up in costumes? Group cohesion comes into play because celebrations tend to bring people together. At a certain point, the customs become culturally widespread and relevant enough so that those who participate feel like they are a part of something bigger…something beyond themselves, often with the soul, excuse me, SOLE purpose of unification.
One can see that superstitions and religious customs played a notable part in the formation of what we now know as Halloween. But what has made it endure as it has?
If anything, human nature seems to err towards welcoming various traditions because, as previously mentioned, such practices evoke a sense of consistency and group cohesion. And why is this important? Well, one aspect of consistency is that it tends to dispel uncertainty. There’s some degree of assurance that comes along with scheduling events so that one knows ahead of time what to expect and can plan accordingly.
It is a basic way of exerting control over life which can admittedly feel somewhat chaotic or unpredictable at times. Aside from staving off the discomfort and anxiety that goes along with the unknown, however, there is also the giddy excitement that may build as we look forward to annual events.
Even though we are far removed from the original intentions and superstitious beliefs of the holiday, one could argue that we maintain many of its essential tenets. More specifically, we tend to see imagery of ghosts, skeletons, witches, spooks, ghouls, mummies, werewolves, and vampires everywhere.
There’s a general understanding that this is a time set aside for the weird and scary. Those thoughts, fears, and insecurities that lurk in the dusty corners of our minds now have free reign.
One could say that, for those who observe Halloween, it has become a holiday wherein we are expected to face our demons, but to do so in a light, ceremonious way provides some temporary symbolic relief. To immerse ourselves in scary films, attend haunted house attractions, and don scary costumes are to face our latent fears head-on, on our terms, which can be very empowering – just ask anyone who’s struggled with crippling anxiety and systematically faced it with the help of a professional.
Speaking of empowerment, there is also the inherent appeal of roleplay associated with Halloween.
The “guising” of yore no longer remains tied to warding off or tricking spirits. These days kids and adults alike may wear a costume to become a favorite character, perhaps someone or something that embodies idealized traits such as strength and bravery (e.g. a superhero) or any of the standard archetypes such as a princess or ninja.
Folks who are normally modest may dress in more sexually bold and adventurous ways. Someone who’s relatively unassuming and harmless may embody a character that evokes fear and power. Individuals or couples may win the appreciation of strangers for their clever costumes that tap into the current zeitgeist.
Anyway, with all this talk of costumes, I suppose a couple of questions still remain: What are YOU gonna be for Halloween? AND What does this costume choice say about you?
Feel free to leave your answers in the comment section below. I promise I won’t read into it too much – just remember to go out and have some spooky fun!