TWU expert weighs in on Halloween horror

TWU expert Phillip Laird weighs in on Halloween horror.

A miniature princess and a pirate make their way up a dark laneway. Glowing ghoulish faces of Jack-o-lanterns line the driveway adding the only amber light on the journey to a spooky looking front door. With the ring of a doorbell a horrifying looking witch opens the door holding a big bowl of candy. "Trick or treat," say the children timidly and then reach for the confection.  The witch cackles loudly.

Ghoulish costumes, scary soundtracks, and haunted houses all work together to frighten us on Halloween.  But what's really behind our fascination with fear and All Hallows Eve? Trinity Western University Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Philip Laird says it may have something to do with our long standing fascination with death, the dark side, after-life and our own mortality.

Laird says, "What Halloween provides to the individual is an opportunity to explore the dark side, the arousing side, or the fearful side of life in a socially acceptable environment. They are almost contradictory parts-- you are exploring a part of your personality that at any other time of the year would be viewed as wrong, and yet for this one time of the year it's acceptable and so people have an opportunity to expose themselves to things, to feel certain things, to get afraid on purpose, and to make other people afraid on purpose. That's why Halloween draws people in."

Scaring ourselves and others on Halloween is big business.  Last October the Retail Council of Canada reported that 68% of Canadians would participate in at least one Halloween activity and British Columbians led the country spending more individually on Halloween than any other province. But it's not all fun and games, fear can be a real factor for some.

Laird says, "Where Halloween goes bad is when there is depersonalization and the fear or the imposition of fear on others can be taken too far. If we take people and strip them of their human qualities by putting them in a ghost costume, for example, they are no longer recognizable publically as themselves.  They then can easily impose fear on someone else. There are a lot of people that will go beyond the socially acceptable limits during Halloween."

While most consumers will only experience a belly ache or two after consuming copious amounts of candy, Halloween does have a negative side.  Every year there is an increase in vandalism and drunkenness.

But Laird says that there are ways to keep Halloween fun while reducing the risk of dangerous behaviour. He recommends making sure children, especially teenagers, wear costumes that allow them to maintain their identity. "The more they cover up and hide from what's happening around them in terms of the world, the more they'll feel licensed to go beyond the boundaries that are normal and acceptable," explains Laird. 

And in anticipation of October 31st Laird has some practical advice for parents who may be introducing Halloween to their children for the first time. He says, "First, you have to know your child. If your child is not able to enjoy Halloween pushing your child isn't going to help. If your child has a lower threshold of fear, you may have a child that really is fearful of many things. You want to be careful to understand your child's capacity to participate in Halloween, especially with young children.

Secondly, take time to explain to your child the first time they go out what Halloween is, why we dress up and what it means.

The third issue with Halloween especially with very young children who are pre-school age is to remember that the distinction between fantasy and reality that is clear to adults is probably not as clear to them. They haven't developed the cognitive reasoning to know how to make that distinction.  So what others may see as fantasy, as costumes that aren't real, they may see as real and so their fear becomes very real."

But can some fear be a good thing?  Laird suggests that it is sometimes good to exercise the emotion of fear at various points in our life.  Public speaking, taking on new challenges or new tasks that make us nervous are good opportunities to exercise this emotion. "Fear is a perfectly natural human emotion. It's an adaptive human emotion. It's functional and serves a purpose in most cases."

Trinity Western University's Student Association (TWUSA) puts on a yearly Harvest Fest - a safe alternative to Halloween.  The free event takes place at Trinity Western University in the Atrium from 6:30-8:30pm on October 31st.  For more information call 604-888-7511 ext 3419.

Trinity Western University, in Langley, B.C., is an independent Christian liberal arts and sciences university enrolling approximately 4000 students. TWU offers 41undergraduate majors, ranging from biotechnology, education, nursing, theatre and music, to psychology, communications and biblical studies. TWU's 17 graduate degree programs include counseling psychology, business, theology, linguistics, and leadership, and interdisciplinary degrees in English, philosophy and history. TWU holds Canada Research Chairs in Dead Sea Scroll Studies, Developmental Genetics and Disease, and Interpretation, Religion & Culture.

Last Updated: 2008-10-24
Author: Erin Mussolulm