I originally wrote the following for you back in 2009, but in case you missed it or would like to see it again this year, it’s reprinted below for your enjoyment. I also talk about a couple of these ideas in the television special Chiller 13: The Decade’s Scariest Movie Moments, re-airing tonight on the Chiller network (check local listings) at 6:30 and 9:30pm central, 7:30 and 10:30 eastern. Have a happy and safe Halloween!
The Psychology of Halloween (and why we like it so much!)
It’s Halloween, the time of year for scary costumes, ghost stories, horror movies, haunted houses, and the like. So, why do many people enjoy being scared (at least in controlled situations)? Well, I think there are a couple of reasons.
First, mentally and physiologically, fear is similar to exhilaration and excitement. The chemicals that go coursing through our brains and bodies when we’re scared are largely the same ones that are released when we get extremely excited about positive things, like winning a big prize. It’s “thrilling” to be scared. Interestingly, people generally seem to enjoy less-extreme thrill sensations as they get older, which probably explains why the lines outside of horror movies and haunted houses are populated predominantly with teenagers.
Another reason people like to be scared may be that “surviving” a scare gives us a powerful feeling. Exposing ourselves to the things that scare us and living to tell about it gives us the sense that we’ve mastered or conquered our fears. For some people, this requires a situation in which the threat is real, like skydiving, while for others, it can be achieved in a situation in which the threat is merely imagined, like a scary movie.
I think for some, playing flesh-eating zombies or blood-sucking vampires on Halloween is a form of exploring and exerting control over the “dark sides” of their personalities, what Carl Jung called our “shadows.” (It’s kind of like the morbid fascination that many people have with trying to understand serial killers and how a human being can be consciously, deliberately evil.)
For most though, I think the costume element of Halloween just gives them a chance to “try on” different identities or show sides of themselves that they don’t usually show, and people generally enjoy that. Think about it – haven’t you seen people get “crazier” at Halloween costume parties than they do on other occasions? There’s something “freeing” about the opportunity to attribute one’s behavior to a character for an evening. (It’s kind of like how some people drink a little, act ridiculous, and later blame their behavior on drunkenness when they weren’t even drunk, but I’ll go into that next time Spring Break rolls around!)