I love Halloween. It’s really my favorite holiday. This year I’m going to curl up with movies, Bell, Book and Candle and The Mummy, a bowl of popcorn and a glass of dry red wine. OK, so this is a column about science. To justify this particular offering, I decided to see if I could find any scientific excuses for my enjoyment of Halloween.
First, what are the roots of Halloween? Ragina Hansen says, “The practices of Halloween mostly come from Celtic paganism in the British Isles, and their feast of Samhain, the new year. They believed it was the time when ghosts and spirits came out to haunt, and the Celts would appease the spirits by giving them treats. The feast was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and parts of Britain.”
An article by Jeremy Adam Smith offers some, limited, scientific support for Halloween. He cites five reasons.
Rituals make life easier. “… we need holidays like Halloween and Dia de los Muertos because they ritualize our fears, mainly of death. ‘Halloween rituals turn horror into play, death into levity, gore into laughter,’ says UC Berkeley psychologist (and GGSC co-founder) Dacher Keltner.”
We like candy. This is pretty obvious but what’s the science? “… an ounce of dark chocolate every day can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, and chocolate has been shown to boost mood-enhancing chemicals in the brain like endorphins and serotonin”.
Stress is good. Robert Sapolsky says that we enjoy moderate levels of stress when we feel we are in a safe place. Think about the attraction of scary movies or roller coasters. “Stephen King once said that horror is a way to face death. It’s an existential thrill, a way to laugh at death and be fine afterwards” (Laskowski).
Pretending is good. “University of Oregon psychologist Marjorie Taylor has found that kids often create pretend characters who do sinister, mean, and even violent things. ‘Like adults who think things through before they act, this gives children an opportunity to play it through before they encounter the situation in real life… If something is bothering you, you can control it or manipulate it in the world of pretending. That’s a way of developing emotional mastery.’”
Death can be fun. “… Oliver Burkemen notes in his essay The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, one study found that walking through a graveyard made people 40 percent more likely to help a stranger than walking down an ordinary block; another found that visualizing death can lead us to become more grateful for the things we have in life.”
So, not a lot of justification. Oh, well. As Orson Wells once said, “So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian… it’s Hallowe’en.”
- Bell, Book and Candle (1958 film), Michael Sragow, The New Yorker.
- The Mummy (1932 film), Wikipedia.
- The History of Halloween: Q&A with Regina Hansen, Amy Laskowski, Boston University, October 31, 2019.
- Five Reasons Why Humans Need Halloween: Scientifically validated reasons to celebrate the scary things in life, Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center, October 30, 2013.
- When is Stress Good for You?, Robert Sapolsky, YouTube, March 20, 2012.
- How to Harness the Positive Power of Negative Thinking, Oliver Burkeman, Greater Good Science Center, October 31, 2012.
- Orson Wells, sign off, War of the Worlds, Mercury Theater on the Air, Columbia Broadcasting System, October 30, 1938.