The Psychology of Halloween

Is it just a commercial conspiracy to add a new retail event to the calendar or does the growing popularity of Halloween reveal something deeper about our psyche?

Even in its modern trivial reincarnation, is the spirit of Halloween reawakening some long buried primal emotions in us?

Whether you see Halloween as an ancient Christian festival an older pagan celebration or a cynical commercial import, its growing appeal over the last decade is undeniable.  So what is it that’s so attractive about Halloween? And why has it become ever more popular on the calendar in the UK?

Perhaps the uncertainties and genuine fears of today’s world and the blandardization of modern urban living are two different reasons why Halloween has regained popularity.

Horror and the supernatural subvert the normal order of things. As such it’s a form of escapism. There is another world out there and life isn’t so predictable. Our senses come alive. Exploring our imagination is just as much a tonic as exploring in the real world. It’s an adventurous holiday from the daily grind.

On being asked why horror is so popular, writer Neil Gaiman in a recent interview commented:

“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses… It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.”

Things that scare us are memorable. And we learn from a scary experience. Old fairy tales were originally much more gruesome than they are today. But beneath it all was a practical application. Here’s what can happen if you go walking through the forests alone…and if you’re silly enough to do so, or unlucky enough to find yourself in this situation, here’s some information that may help you. Don’t trust strangers, or be lulled into a false sense of security. Be suspicious and keep your spider sense tingling!

Instilling fear through storytelling had many important functions in societies through the ages – it helps build a sense of understanding and solidarity in a social group…it prepares children for the scary realities in the world and it can even be used to encourage and control certain behaviour.

We’ve been scaring each other for thousands of years, but it’s perhaps only in recent generations that we’ve been doing it for fun..and profit. Perhaps its gaining resurgence because modern life has become too comfortable and cosy and predictable. Maybe it’s why there is a growth in adventure sports and travel. We need a thrill and have an innate wish to live life on the edge a little.

It gets the adrenaline moving and our fight/flight response kicks in. It doesn’t even need to be a physical experience. Simply watching a horror film can effect our brain chemistry. Just as in real stress situations dopamine can be released leading to a genuine sense of relief when a story reaches its resolution. Recent research is also showing that people have different responses to dopamine – and some crave it more than others, just as some like the feeling of alcohol more than others.

On a much deeper psychological level Halloween concerns one of the most fundamental elements in storytelling – fear. It’s a powerful emotion – and as such is at the core of many great stories.

In Storynomics, Hollywood Script Editor and story guru Robert Mckee traces a key step in the evolution of storytelling itself back to our first notions of mortality.  Stories were a desire to create sense and meaning out of life – and death. John Yorke author of ‘Into the woods: A five-act journey into story’ even states that “Death is a powerful, perhaps THE most powerful element in storytelling.”

For the Celts Halloween was where the ‘veil’ between the world of the living and the dead was at its thinnest. For Mexicans the associated ‘Day of the dead’ (dia de Muertos)  is where the souls of the deceased return to be with their families. Perhaps Part of Halloween’s appeal today is that it offers a way to confront our mortality and our deepest fears in a controllable, way. Even at its most trivial and commercialised maybe Halloween is still touching some of our deepest primal emotions.

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