“Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.” So goes the Shakespearean mantra for this, the 10th month, October. Wicked winds rip the last desperate leaves from creaking limbs and send them skittering down empty streets as darkness steals hours from our day.
It’s Halloween again. Why do we love it so much we spend $7 billion a year on it? It’s because we need fake scary so we won’t be as afraid of real scary. Holidays like Halloween and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) allow us to engage in rituals where we play with horror and gore and all things terrifying. We host elaborate parties, decorate, trick or treat with kids and pets or just hand out goodies. This ritualized social activity lets us connect with each other in neighborhoods and communities, which only usually occurs during disasters. As a result, it makes us feel good.
What else draws us to this primitive, once both religious and pagan celebration? It’s one more excuse to eat candy (dark chocolate is now officially good for us, reducing our risk of cardio issues). Why it is better than some of the other big holidays? Number one, no gifts or travel are required. Thanksgiving only brings family together to argue over whether Aunt Ethel’s or Grampa Al’s stuffing recipe should be implemented, or whether (gasp) we should even kill the big goofy bird and eat him at all. Thought Halloween was financially stressful? Christmas has us spending $643 billion. We then argue over which side of the family we visit on the actual holiday and who gets heads or tails for the back-breaking sofa bed. Finally, we drive home a carload of useless toys and doodads already predestined for the spring yard sale. Valentine’s Day just gets most people depressed. We are either reminded of who is not in our lives or we don’t live up to the romantic expectations of those who are.
But Halloween’s scariness is not created by stressful levels of socially complicated emotional drama. It’s simple and clean – a gruesome mask and good leap out from behind a bush will do it. Halloween fantasy encourages us to try on different personas, good and bad without repercussion or harm to anyone. We can control our role playing and develop emotional mastery in a not-for-real scenario. It’s why millions watch “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.” Flirting with the many faces of inescapable death makes our eventual death a little less scary. Studies have shown that strolling through a graveyard, and not just a street, makes people 40 percent more likely to help a stranger. Visualizing death makes us more grateful that we’re not quite there yet. Play acting as frightening wart-nosed witches and staggering zombies exercises our emotional strength and makes us stronger when we face more of life’s real frights like climate change, war and natural disaster.
Once upon a time people feared lost souls wandering on All Hallows Eve. Other generations were afraid of errant children tipping over their outhouses if treats weren’t up to par. More modern times have seen trickery devolve into egg throwing, shaving cream decorating and toilet papering neighborhood yards. Those activities are certainly annoying, but scary? I’ll tell you what’s scary: “educated” judges and politicians who believe the fact that dinosaurs existed is a hoax. I’m not sure how they justify years of archaeological finds of bones and fossils displayed in museums. And the same subjects don’t accept that homo sapiens evolved from an apelike creature. Nothing is scarier than respectably attired older white males in positions of power who masquerade as intelligent humans yet still adhere to these delusions. Just as terrifying are conspiracy theorists who don’t believe astronauts landed on the moon or that thousands of Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
There are more frightening things than Halloween: leaders whose egos cause them to speak for themselves and not the safety of their nations, and people who don sheets in the night not to trick or treat but to burn and hang other humans whose skin is colored differently from theirs. So, yes, give us the innocence and harmless fun of Halloween with its ghouls, menacing fanged creatures, candy and mystery, most of which can be washed off, neatly folded and packed away in the basement or attic with no harm done to anyone.
Truth be told, there will always be red-horned devils peering out from behind dark bushes which elude capture or control. Be afraid, be very afraid…