It’s October 1st! The official start of the Halloween season!
If you’re an American, chances are you’ve encountered the signs of Halloween long before today. Grocery stores have already set out candy and decoration displays. Target and Walmart are stocked with the season’s most in-demand costumes. Party City is running commercials for tacky gothic decorations and cheap costumes during every commercial break. And while you might proclaim your annoyance at these opportunistic cash grabs, the truth is (if you’re reading this) you secretly relish all these things as harbingers of Halloween.
After all, this is a fun time of year. On top of the cool and crisp delights of autumn, Halloween offers a whole month of creepy, macabre, silly joy. Children dress up in adorable costumes and beg for candy in one of our nation’s most treasured pastimes. Horror movie marathons dominate cable TV. Network television shows roll out “Halloween” episodes. Office candy dishes overflow with all the best candies. Haunted house attractions pop up all over, promising wicked scares that will be photographed for our amusement. People obsess over the perfect costume, especially where costume parties are concerned, with invitations promising spooky, boisterous celebrations.
To a certain crowd, Halloween offers more than those traditional festivities. If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting all year for the one month when your love of scary movies, horror literature, and other morbidities become socially acceptable and culturally relevant. It’s the one time of year when people actually want to hear your thoughts on why the 1982 version of The Thing is far superior to both the original and its own remake. It’s the one time of year when people might sincerely ask you which Clive Barker short story is the scariest. I know Halloween is the one time of year people ask me for movie and ghost story recommendations and don’t think I’m weird for rattling off long lists.
I don’t blame them. Scary stuff isn’t for everyone and it’s not meant to be experienced all the time. Different people have different tolerances. I understand that the world is already full of violence and horror. I understand some people don’t want to see that in their entertainment when they could turn on the news instead.
But why the sudden change on October 1st? What is this cultural fascination with Halloween and horror?
I think it’s because Halloween is a cultural ritual. Rituals can be secular instead of religious and still wield immense psychological power. They work to solidify an individual’s sense of agency and identity while strengthening communal bonds.
For example, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t have magical properties in and of itself, but it’s incredibly adept at using a meaningful incantation to unite a community and foster patriotism. It’s become second nature to countless Americans. Another example is college and university fight songs, which function to bind college alumni as a group and imprint upon an alumnus’ personal identity. The college fight song energizes athletes and hypes spectators in the stadium; off the football field, a fight song becomes a way to identify other members of the group, which instantly creates a strong connection based on shared identity.
Or consider the two-fold national ritual of New Year’s, when the old year is celebrated to excess in order to make way for a new year brimming with untapped potential. New Year’s Eve encourages us to indulge all our vices in one night, to get it out of our collective system so we are emptied of our flaws and ready to be better versions of ourselves come New Year’s Day.
This is how Halloween works.
Halloween creates a justification for many otherwise unacceptable human behaviors. You are allowed, if not outright encouraged, to take a break from the persona you present to the world and become someone else for a few hours. The more ridiculous your costume, the better.
You can eat candy like it’s nothing (because candy calories don’t count during Halloween, duh). You can go pay money to walk through a haunted house and have the piss scared out of you, and no one questions it. It’s expected to watch demented movies and read harrowing novels, squealing and recoiling and shivering. There’s a certain pleasure in peeking through your fingers at something you normally avoid looking at. It’s all so exhilarating.
And in the mysterious intersection between the psychological and physical worlds, Halloween creates room to examine, however obliquely, the sinister parts of human existence. As a society, we have worked hard to make the world safer and less violent. But our best efforts will never totally prevail; thus we perform the ritual of Halloween to affirm our bonds in the face of the world’s darkness.
The various Halloween accoutrements—spooky decorations, bloody costumes, haunted houses, horror movies, and ghost stories—help us acknowledge what we normally avoid. Children can engage with scary things on a digestible level. Teens and adults share myths about the things that haunt us. We admit the uncomfortable truth that human beings sometimes crave violence. In our death-phobic culture, we are allowed to confront death and accept its implications.
As with any art form, horror movies and scary novels package these terrible truths into a 2-hour film or a 300-page book, thereby imposing form and shape onto what we often struggle to articulate. We take a closer look and find that we can have our cake and eat it too—it is possible to achieve psychological proximity from a safe minimum distance.
With our fears on display, we can find solace in being honest. We can find community by reaching out to each other and asking, Do you have the same fears I do? Are we a little bit the same?
For one month, we celebrate Halloween to gain dominion over our individual and collective fears.
And on November 1st, if we’ve performed the ritual correctly, we have exorcised our demons. At least until next year.