Halloween Doesn’t Have to Be Scary For Us and Our Children

written by: Matthew Sabatine

This post/article represents the views of only the author and not everyone at Common Issues.

My parents forbade my participation in door-to-door candy-collecting when I was a child living under their roof every Halloween. We were conservative Christians and I was sent to a private school where we frowned upon public schools for their Halloween celebrations.

I was taught that October 31st was the special night for witches and Satanists to do their necromancy, spellbinding, and capturing humans and animals to use as sacrifices. My parents were so paranoid about being inadvertently complicit in Satan’s plan that they wouldn’t even answer the door to give candy to the little children dropping by. I was told that the dressing up was purposed for warding off the evil spirits, because that is what people from hundreds of years ago did on this night.

My parents never wanted me to dress up, because they didn’t want to be associated with that practice from the Celts…perhaps. Maybe for them that would reveal an unconscious lack of trust in Jesus Christ’s protection and a stronger trust in the costume’s protection against the maleficent spirits. My parents wanted to treat it strictly as a Satanically influenced holiday, never realizing that many Christians all over the world formally gather to have observances of All Hallows’ Eve and light candles on the graves of the deceased. [1]  

I’m not complaining about missing out on Halloween celebrations as a child. I simply find it odd that, as a child, since my parents didn’t want me to be afraid, they refused to celebrate fear by teaching me to believe that any participatory action during Halloween would be disobedience against God, a premise that quite often inspires fear and implies punishment. Didn’t we just defeat the purpose of peace?

The Fear on Halloween Is Not True Horror

Do people really care about the fear associated with the vampires, ghouls, monsters, and other supernatural entities? All the disguises and having fun apparently mocks what people from hundreds of years ago misunderstood about how nature works, so perhaps we don’t care. The thrill and ebullience we get from being scared at this time of year includes a kind of fear different from the cortisol-pumping, fight-or-flight experience when encountering a bear in the woods, having a violent brawl, or a financial pitfall. Such a thrill perhaps indicates an underlying realization that the supernaturalism we associate with Halloween is imaginary.

Halloween is not inherently scary. It doesn’t have to be associated with fear. It can be a time of self-reflection, for both you and your children. As a parent, you can reflect on your inner metaphorical ghosts and demons. What worries and concerns have haunted and bedeviled you throughout the year? What can you exorcise from your psyche, to not carry it with you into the next year?

Instead of using peremptory “just-don’t-be-afraid” statements, try to console and reassure your children by asking about why they are afraid. Ask them to be precise. Is it the shape of the nose on a witch’s mask? Is it the way she holds her broom? Is it the red, glowing eyes of a goblin? We all have specific things deeply embedded within us that act as causes for our fears that we don’t readily understand until we question ourselves. So, teach your child to face his/her fears by doing a little honest self-questioning.

As a parent, avoidance of what upsets your child is understandable and instinctual, but just static avoidance can oftentimes do nothing but confirm for your child that there is something to fear. The principles of exposure therapy would have us realize that we must break the patterns of fear and defective avoidance strategies by creating a safe environment in which we expose ourselves to the things we avoid and fear. This is what exposure therapists do with their clients; they create the safe environment. As a parent, you can model that strategy too.

As a scientifically validated practice, exposure therapy is used to treat a cornucopia of problems (phobias, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, et al). By exposing your child to troublesome images and thoughts, but in small doses, you can teach him/her at an early age how to manage fear-responses to things that are essentially harmless. [2]

We should invest more trust in our children’s ability to discriminate what is realistic from what is fantastical. A 2004 study involving 44 children tested this when the Candy Witch was discussed at their childcare center prior to Halloween. They were informed that the Candy Witch will go to a house to exchange candy for a toy after Halloween, if invited. Evidence for the Candy Witch’s existence was provided when the parents would call for the Candy Witch to make the exchange and the children would find a toy swapped out for some candy the next morning. 66% of the children believed that the Candy Witch was real, with the younger ones (mostly 3-years-old) no more inclined to belief than the older children (mostly 4 and 5-years-old). The older children showed more sensitivity to the existence or nonexistence of evidence, although. Those who didn’t get any evidence weren’t duped while those who got evidence were duped. These findings revealed that not all children are gullible or at least not as gullible as we usually suspect. Though many believed, plenty others never fell for the trickery and the older children were adequately impacted by the deliverance or non-deliverance of evidence. [3]

About that study, I want to quote from Wiley Online Library:

Factors hypothesized to affect beliefs in fantastical beings were examined by introducing children to a novel fantastical entity, the Candy Witch. Results revealed that among older preschoolers, children who were visited by the Candy Witch exhibited stronger beliefs in the Candy Witch than did those who were not. Among children who were visited, older children had stronger beliefs than did younger children. Among children who were not visited, those with a high Fantasy Orientation believed more strongly than did those with a low Fantasy Orientation. Belief remained high one year later. At both time points, the number of other fantastical beings in which a child believed was significantly related to belief in the Candy Witch.” [4]

Symbolic of the cycle of life and death is said to be the festival of Samhain, originating with the Celts. It was meant to deal with the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the harshness of winter. It was believed that October 31st to November 1st was the pinnacle of spiritual activity. Samhain celebrants lit bonfires to drive spirits back to the spirit world and away from the living.

Now, what observable evidence did they have for holding these beliefs? I don’t know. The October leaves, ground, trees, sky, and air always provide an ambience that can make you feel lonely, murky, and depressed. It makes you experience feelings you don’t have any other time of the year. An overactive imagination appears to be the go-to tool when dealing with anything spooky and mysterious. To get rid of the spooky and mysterious, we shoo it away with methods that we force ourselves to believe in instead of proving their effectiveness.

When it comes to proving what is real versus what is going to help us survive, the latter wins, and I think Error Management Theory would agree. We have developed cognitive biases and heuristics throughout evolutionary history because they have favored our survival and reproductive success. When weighing the cost differences of errors during uncertain circumstances, selection forces of nature must favor adaptive biases.  

I find it unlikely that the Celts always took their superstitions for granted. Though they had to be outwardly committed to their cultural norms, they likely had sometimes said to themselves “Are these spirits real or am I crazy and delusional? Maybe it’s better to be crazy and delusional than to risk being right about these evil spirits.”

It is better to fall prey to a false positive (believing an effect is there when it isn’t) than it is to fall prey to a false negative (not seeing an effect when it is there). Think about it: erring on the side of caution (getting out of the building when the fire alarm goes off) versus becoming vulnerable because of ignorance (being skeptical when the alarm is accurate).

But we as 21st Century dwellers know better. With all the technology, surveillance, and updated heuristics we have, have we ever been able to detect anything that gives us reason to believe that spirits are crossing over from another realm to harm us?

What You Really Should Worry About This Time of Year!

If we want to worry about what could harm us this Halloween season, we should be more concerned about traffic and pedestrian accidents.  The National Safety Council estimated that 7,450 pedestrians were killed in traffic or non-traffic tragedies in 2017. The research found that 18% of these deaths occurred at crossings and intersections, during which inadequate visibility and lighting were likely causes. Children’s risk for getting killed by an oncoming vehicle doubles during Halloween time. [5]

The other thing to be mindful about is costume safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending nonflammable costumes with masks that don’t prevent the child from seeing. They recommend giving glow sticks and reflective tape to your children to alert drivers that pedestrians are nearby. [5]

Some rules to establish for you and your family:

  1. A responsible adult should be with the children for the entire time they gallivant around the neighborhood.
  2. The older children should stay on a preplanned route that you know is safe.
  3. Your children should agree with you on an exact time to return home.
  4. They should remember to never get in a vehicle with a stranger.
  5. They should remain in areas where plenty of light is present and never get separated from their friends.
  6.  They should not open nor eat their candy until after they return home.
  7. Their eyes should be facing forward in front of them and not looking at their phones/electronic devices.

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com.

Disclosure statement: I am not a licensed therapist nor doctor. My intention is to not pretend to be either. The information contained in this article is not meant to be accepted instead of a doctor or licensed therapist’s advice. All information contained herein is based on my interpretation of the books and articles I read. My hope and desire is that any troubled person reading this would feel encouraged to get help from a licensed practitioner.

References:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween

[2] https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/exposure-therapy

[3] https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/10/31/500034064/halloween-provides-a-look-into-human-psychology

[4] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2004.00366.x

[5] https://www.nsc.org/home-safety/tools-resources/seasonal-safety/autumn/halloween

2 thoughts on “Halloween Doesn’t Have to Be Scary For Us and Our Children

Add yours

  1. “…a cornucopia of problems.” I see what you did there.
    This was a particularly enjoyable read, particularly the brief historical background. I have heard of All Hallows Eve in relation to the saints, but didn’t know that the Celts celebrated the Festival of Samhain.

    Like

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