The Psychology of Halloween |

4 min read

The American version of Halloween is widely believed to be a descendant of a Celtic harvest festival that is also designed to remember the dead (and ward off ghosts). How can we explain the elevation of an ancient pagan ritual into a month-long, billion-dollar holiday in what is purported to be an advanced, modern civilization?

Various scholars have argued that Halloween is rooted in human biology, specifically fear—an emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous or presents a threat. In scary situations, adrenaline and other hormones are released as the body prepares for fight or flight.

By constructing artificial threatening scenarios, however, we’re able to contain fear in a safe, socially endorsed manner. (Much the same thing takes place during scary movies and television shows.) Costumes further function to ensure Halloweeners that the experience is made up—an imaginative form of play or theatrical event. That large quantities of free candy are distributed throughout this fictional process figuratively and literally sweetens the deal.

Scholars have also parsed the semiotics of Halloween, seeing contemporary meanings embedded in the two-thousand-year-old holiday. In his 2000 article “Toward a Theory of Public Ritual” published in Sociological Theory, for example, the American sociologist Amitai Etzioni made the case that Halloween operated as a “tension-management ritual” through which collective fears, anxieties, and fantasies were played out and given material expression.

Dr. Jason Parker, a senior lecturer in the psychology department at Old Dominion University, thought much the same. “We get a physical response and afterward the accomplishment of ‘I overcame that fear,’” he said in 2002, stating that Halloween “stimulates your entire emotions system.”

In her 2008 article published in Ethos: The Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, Cindy Dell Clark presented Halloween as a complex process in which “inversions of meaning” were prominent. Adults support “anti-normative themes” during Halloween, she found in her research, and children gained “ascendance” through costumed trick-or-treating. The holiday is, in other words, the one day of the year during which we are not only allowed but encouraged to, as David Byrne put it, stop making sense.

Death, whether articulated as skeletons, ghosts, zombies, graveyards, or some other post-life form or venue, is a staple of the Halloween experience, as that perhaps represents our greatest fear. In his 1997 Death Anxiety and Clinical Practice, Robert Langs argued that death represented “a ubiquitous but elusive dread,” vividly capturing how many of us feel about one day disappearing from the planet. “The existential mix of human existence couples the celebration of life with the awesome awareness of the eventuality of death,” he wrote, pointing out that the inescapable awareness that life would eventually end was grounded in the fundamentals of human evolution.

Going further, Langs posited that anxieties surrounding death lurked in our minds but, for various reasons, were neglected in psychotherapy. (That the subject was largely taboo in Western societies had much to do with that.) Psychological defenses such as denial and repression were common with regard to death, as were communicative defenses (meaning we just didn’t like to talk about it). With Halloween, however, we have the opportunity to acknowledge and perhaps even celebrate death (and in a far more fun and social way than psychotherapy).

Tamar Kushnir, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, has also offered thoughts on why we turn deep fears into tricking or treating. In situations that don’t present true danger, “a simulated fear is a way to practice and enjoy the experience of being afraid,” she explained in 2019, adding that such behavior is “a way of playing with emotion without real cost.”

I hold that Halloween and other illusionary or magical expressions of fright have gained cultural currency as science and technology have become more entrenched in our daily lives. The rise of the internet, decoding of the human genome, emergence of virtual realities, and now encroaching artificial intelligence have, in other words, accelerated our desire to experience phenomena that defy logic and rationalism and reside outside the known universe. It is, after all, the stuff of science and technology that represents the truly scary scenarios, making devils, witches, goblins, and other such unearthly entities relatively welcome, even friendly sights. Boo!

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