TONIGHT IN MANY suburban neighbourhoods across the country, young children will take to the streets to go trick-or-treating as part of Australia’s growing embrace of Halloween. Similarly, teens and young people will gleefully dress up and attend parties in costumes that would normally be regarded as vulgar and distasteful: grotesque corpses, bloody head injuries, malignant growths spilling out of heads, decapitated bodies. There will also be those who choose to embody the year’s pop-cultural heroes, such as Ken and Barbie, Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, Wednesday Addams and Carmy from The Bear.
Halloween is a North American tradition that has its roots in a Celtic harvest festival designed to remember the dead and ward off ghosts. Given horror and gore are traditionally themes from which we recoil, you do have to wonder why the festival is so popular and keenly embraced.
Well, humans are nothing if not contradictory creatures. One of the central tenets of psychotherapy is that to conquer fears you must confront them and there are many avenues of popular culture in which we subtly, and sometimes unconsciously, attempt to do this. Halloween is perhaps the most spectacular and fun way we’ve come up with to deal with deep-seated fears.
I once attended a Halloween party in an F1 motor racing outfit, pretending to be the late, great Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna. Dressing as a dead person who died in tragic circumstances would normally be considered in extremely poor taste, yet my outfit was a hit at the party—there was some tiresome explanation required for non-F1 fans but once they cottoned on to what I was doing they invariably slapped my back (also tiresome) and appeared to admire my eagerness to poke fun at societal taboos.
But compared to the lengths to which some Halloween partygoers go to shock onlookers, my outfit was relatively tame; I have seen outfits that invoke mutilated bodies or victims of grisly homicides that would normally be classed as morally reprehensible. At Halloween though, almost anything goes.
Psychologists posit that by constructing artificially threatening scenarios we’re able to contain and control our fears in a safe, socially sanctioned manner. Herein lies the appeal of horror movies, which offer the viewer the chance to experience an adrenaline rush and activate our fight or flight response without the threat of physical harm. The same contrivance operates in theme park rides and perhaps too, in the embrace of true crime podcasts in which listeners can voyeuristically tread in the footsteps of a serial killer, for example, without putting themselves in any danger.
Dressing in macabre costumes is a way of inverting our deepest fears. The effect on the onlooker is usually not one of terror, as it normally would be, but instead produces amusement. From a psychological standpoint, by laughing at our most deep-rooted fears, we are conquering them. “We get a physical response and afterward the accomplishment of ‘I overcame that fear’,” says Dr. Jason Parker, a senior lecturer in the psychology department at Old Dominion University. Halloween “stimulates your entire emotions system.”
Death, of course, is perhaps our greatest fear and Halloween is a forum in which to reckon with existential angst head on by dressing in skeletons, ghosts, zombies, or embracing graveyard motifs. While our fear of death is normally something we seek to repress, at Halloween we not only acknowledge it but celebrate it, which you’d have to say beats rounds of psychotherapy.
What are we to make of those who don’t look to horror and gore for inspiration at Halloween but instead look to invert social norms in other ways, by dressing overtly provocatively or effectively under-dressing: skimpy nurses outfits, mankinis and the like.
In an article published in Ethos: The Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, Cindy Dell Clark presented Halloween as a complex process in which “inversions of meaning” were prominent and adults support “anti-normative themes”. This is probably true of all fancy dress parties but it’s pushed to the limit at Halloween.
In short, it’s clear that dressing up at Halloween serves a purpose. It helps us invert and conquer deep-rooted fears about death and gives us a break from societal taboos that rule so much of our lives. While it’s regarded as a children’s holiday and they too benefit from the confronting fears of monsters and ghouls, it also helps adults deal with the existential angst that plagues us all and, for one night, allows us to break free from the prison of social constructs. In effect, it’s a holiday from fear and anxiety. Who doesn’t want one of those?