Halloween: Whence the pursuit of horror?

October 27, 2009 | By | 2 Replies More

Some of the neighborhoods near my house in St. Louis have already celebrated Halloween. For instance, my street celebrates Halloween on the Sunday afternoon prior to Halloween. Celebrating in the daylight makes it easier for us to visit with little neighborhood children and their parents. The nearby Compton Heights neighborhood celebrates Halloween on the Saturday night prior to Halloween. Our family was invited to venture over to Compton Heights a few nights ago, and we weren’t disappointed. head

Amidst all of the traditional candy-giving, we stumbled upon one particular house where the family had put together its own haunted house. The family owns a big old house, but also owns a separate large two-story carriage house in the back. They hired an electrician to wire up the carriage house with sophisticated lighting and they assembled a team of 20 friends and family to pose as various types of dead people inside the house. Not typical dead people, mind you. Dead people who stand still in the dim lighting and come alive just when you are convinced that they are mannequins (and there were quite a few mannequins too, some of them dismembered). When selected dead people came alive, they yelped, or they screamed; some of them reached out and grabbed you. There were ghouls and ghosts, a vampire, a mummy, floating bones, a guy with a “chainsaw,” and a beheaded guy who suddenly moaned, all of this horror looking rather real and all of these characters lurking carefully amidst the dim lighting as we toured this incredible house.

front-of-haunted-houseEach of the photos in this post is from this house. Note that it’s not always easy to take photos in a darkly lit haunted house. While I was taking a photo of a decapitated head on a table, for instance, a dead man reached out and tugged on my sleeve, smudging the long exposure.

How good was it? I stood outside for 30 minutes after I toured the haunted house, and every ten minutes or so, I saw a panicky grown child running from the haunted house crying. Bravo! I then learned that the haunted house family has been putting on this magnificent show, for free, for 15 years. Double Bravo!

But as I walked away from the haunted house, I wondered two things. A) Why do people usually avoid this sort of horror? B) More topically, why, on Halloween, do we seek out horror? Why do we seek out this kind of graphic supernatural horror, horror that consists of many things that are especially terrifying but also things that are compelling because they are physically impossible? Consider the many science-defying spectacles, such as floating objects, dead people who are alive and witches casting spells. What follows are some of my off-the-cuff candidates for why we find these sorts of horror compelling enough that we build a special celebration around them.hanging-bodies

Maybe Halloween is a reaction formation —maybe Halloween is our chance to act brave in reaction to representations of things that actually terrify us.

Idea #2: The most terrifying thing about Halloween is death, of course. Halloween is thus a chance for us to “dress up death,” to make it “pretty and fun,” just like Terror Management Theory suggests that we do with our own bodies all the time. TMT points out that much of our odd-seeming behavior is driven by our shock and dismay that we consist of decaying bodies that will one day be dead. Hence, the baubles and fancy clothes we wear to distract ourselves from our own mortality. And, once a year, on Halloween, we dress up death and we laugh at it as best we can. We do it with vigor, because as long as we are working hard at it, it seems as though we are getting something done—it seems like we are getting somewhere. That’s because of one of the powerful illusions of life: movement is progress.

Another idea is this: On Halloween it’s OK to look at fascinating things that are usually off limits. Maybe Halloween is our chance to get it all out or our system and not again for the rest of the year–unless we have the “opportunity” to attend an open-casket wake, where we have permission to look at a dead body, even though it’s dressed up to look like it’s alive and sleeping—which brings us back to TMT. greeting-ghost

Not only is it OK to look at macabre things on Halloween. We are encouraged to stare at them, and to create our own highly realistic objects designed to evoke horror. We encourage our young children to participate too: “Look at that man with an axe embedded in his head, Billy! Ha ha!” And these scenes would certainly evoke horror on most days of the year. On most days of the year, most people would claim to be grossed out simply by watching a surgeon professionally perform life-saving surgery on a real life human being, in a scene that involves much less blood, no chainsaws and little to no chance of dying.

But consider yet another idea for why we seek out the horrors of Halloween. Our fascination with Halloween (and horror films and magic) may actually stem from systematic violations of innately grounded expectations regarding physics and biology. Ghosts passing through walls, for instance, clashes with one of the principles of physics that psychologists Elizabeth Spelke and Susan Carey take to be innate. In their experiments, even infants became fascinated (spellbound?) when the laws of physics appeared to be broken (in one experiment, a ball that had been put into a box was GONE when the box was reopened. Did it pass through the solid walls of the box?). http://www.ircs.upenn.edu/pinkel/lectures/spelke/index.shtml Spelke and Carey seem to have demonstrated that even tiny children come equipped with folk physics. Violations of these laws of folk physics are compelling and exciting in children, compelling and exciting (and sometimes disturbing)in adults too. Just as newborns show surprise and excitement when their expectations are falsified, those who celebrate Halloween (or who attend horror movies) appear to have an endless thirst for these anomalies of physics. The zombies of Halloween and horror films also violate psychological expectations and also biological expectations about death; they also seem to constitute mindless automata.

The sorts of things we see in horror films aren’t just scary; they cause us to “dishabituate” from the commonplace, which is exciting. On a potentially relate topic, these violations of the laws of physics and biology might well explain the excitement when preachers tell their congregations supernatural claims and miracles.

People often think that fascination with Halloween (and horror films) stems from the cathartic pleasure of facing fears in a safe environment. Though this is certainly part of the fascination, the fact that many of these creepy things are also violations of physics and biology could well be a separate and neglected component of the explanation.

So take your pick among these possibilities. Or maybe you have your own idea about why we allow ourselves to seek out and enjoy graphic and science-defying horror on Halloween.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Culture, Media, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Speaking of violated expectations, here's the right tune for this article:

    <object width="425" height="344"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/jP6nYs9Il7c&hl=en&fs=1&"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/jP6nYs9Il7c&hl=en&fs=1&&quot; type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="344"></embed></object>

    "A Hard Day's Night of the Living Dead"

  2. Erika Price says:

    We may also enjoy a jolt of fear because we mistake the physiological arousal for excitement or sexual arousal. A variety of psych experiments have demonstrated that scaring participants can trick them into believing they are attracted to a stranger- a sped-up heart can mean a lot of things, after all. Perhaps we enjoy the scares of halloween because we can get a livened pulse and an adrenaline rush in a rare-but-safe way.

    See here for more on the psychology of how arousal is interpreted: http://www.psychwiki.com/wiki/Misattribution_of_A

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