At first glance, the idea of Halloween seems counter-intuitive. After all, most people would agree that fear is a negative emotion – so why do we dress up as ghouls and goblins, tell scary stories, watch scary movies, and generally seek frights for a thrill? As a psychologist serving the Hermosa Beach area, I work with people who have genuine phobias every day, and trust me, that’s not a fun thing to deal with. So let’s decode this intriguing paradox by exploring a little bit of the psychology behind Halloween and the unique traditions that go with it.
To understand why people take pleasure in feeling scared, we can look at the example of watching horror movies. These films are designed to be frightening in every way: everything – from the color schemes to the editing decisions, and of course, the plot – is carefully fine-tuned to scare viewers as much as possible. So why do some people love watching these movies, while others would prefer to opt for a mild romcom?
The answer may lie in their orientation toward sensation seeking. In a study that used an fMRI machine to scan participants’ brains as they watched horror movies, researchers found that participants with a stronger propensity towards sensation seeking – the intentional seeking out of high-intensity experiences – were more likely to enjoy the horror movies. During intense or particularly scary scenes, the parts of their brains associated with arousal would light up.
This was true for non-sensation seekers as well, but the difference is that sensation seekers showed markedly reduced arousal levels during calm, quiet scenes, while non-sensation seekers did not. For sensation seekers, the calm and quiet was too boring, so they preferred the excitement of getting scared.
Well, that explains all the scary movies, but why the costumes? Part of it may be a ritualized, societally-accepted mechanism for breaking out of our social “character” every once in awhile. During Halloween, we get to play dress up as monsters, ghouls, and goblins – all things associated with the idea of death and evil, which are generally taboo. It’s a one day pass for acting out of our usual social role and getting to try on a different identity, even if just in play.
It also creates something of an inversion of social norms. Children, who are normally dependent on adults, are given more symbolic power by dressing as fearsome monsters and roaming the streets for candy. During Halloween, the kids are in charge, and they look the part. In that way, Halloween might be an opportunity for kids to not only try on different identities through play, but also to build confidence by exerting symbolic power in a safe environment.
All these fears and frights can be fun during Halloween – but of course, if you have something you’re really scared of, I’m always here to help. As a trained counselor and psychologist serving clients in Hermosa Beach, I have the professional skills and experience to treat many forms of phobia and anxiety. I strive to take a compassionate approach to every client I work with. Feel free to call me at 310.892.2572 if you’d like to learn more about therapy or have any questions, and don’t hesitate to reach out to me using my contact form if you’d like to schedule a consultation. Until then, I hope you have a happy – and frightening if you like thrills – Halloween!