Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Spirit of Halloween

Raphael, Eusebius of Cremona raising Three Men from the Dead
 with Saint Jerome's Cloak (c 1502-3)


Seven Scary Themes

1. Surprise! That delightful toddler experience on being found or finding a hiding grandparent; The squeal of faux fright when a family member pops up unexpectedly; The ability to hide within a dinosaur costume or some scary character and get a reaction from play-along adults.
     I’m lost! This is a closely related childhood fear of distress when a child can’t find his or her parents. Especially for a child alone in a mall or who wandered off in a large store. Now this fright is available in a corn maze or the darkened halls of a haunted house.

2. I’m scared! What fun to trot out the usual fear-inducing spiders and snakes, create faux thunderstorms, or move people into an enclosed space. Fun, unless you are one of the 27,000,000 Americans that have a specific phobia.

3. Yuk! Blood and gore and icky stuff. Blood and other bodily fluids evoke a disgust response in many people. No wonder ancient people had rules about blood and things that come out of the body. The very thought can make you want to wash. And experiments show that people do want to wash when exposed to disgust-inducing imagery.

4. Aaaaah! Don’t shoot me!  Murder and destruction. The stuff of nightmares and horror movies works to create insomnia among other effects. Not surprisingly, we pay attention to news about shootings even though the action took place thousands of miles away involving people we do not know. We naturally respond to threats with alarm.

5. Oooooh!  Sexuality. For millennia, humans have created laws and regulations to reign in sexual urges. Not surprisingly, some scary themes play up sex in not so subtle ways. 

6. Oh my God! Angels and demons, witches and evil spirits. A few are fascinated by seemingly unexplainable happenings like turning tables and Ouija boards. Some famous people like Abraham Lincoln joined his wife at a séance. The Bible contains warnings against seeking mediums. There are stories of demon possession and exorcism and megabattles involving supernatural powers.  Americans know of the witches of Salem and the time when fear ran amok and 20 people were executed. Some connect Halloween to the Druids. People fear the powers of the universe as much greater than the power of mere mortals.

7. You will die!  Death. Tombstones, caskets, zombies, and the troubled dead evoke primal fears of our own mortality. Something we’d rather not think about.

Four Frights that are not Delights

1. Distress. Although some people can learn to confront their fears, others dread being dragged into painful situations. The kin to the fright response is fighting. Expect a fight or withdrawal when pushing too hard.

2. Desecration. The views of religious conservatives seem quaint and strange as they quote ancient scriptures and warn of pending doom and destruction. They flee from any hint of Halloween for fear their loved ones will be exposed to Satan or participate in anything that glorifies evil and portrays supernatural experiences as playful and fun occasions.

3. Disrespect. Scattered amongst us many who have lost real limbs fighting for our freedoms. The psychological wounds of war trouble the memories of those who have loaded the corpses of friends onto trucks and helicopters. The blood seeping out of a bullet-ridden friend opens sores that never heal. War is hell. And many have had similar experiences in their hometown.

4. Dehumanization. While some sexy outfits can be playful and others border on cultural acceptability, there are always extremes of in-your-face sexuality that exploits, intrudes, and is downright offensive. But worse than offensive ploys are those portrayals that trigger trauma responses in millions of rape victims worldwide. Most victims of sexual violence are women.

Seven Lessons from Psychological Science

1. Illusions can be explained. The brilliant demonstrations by Derren Brown reveal how easy it is to deceive us. We quickly believe supernatural activity rather than natural phenomena explain unusual events. In the 1850s, British scientist, Michael Faraday created tests to show how turning tables could be explained by human expectations rather than some spirit force. Other events like spelling prophecies with a glass on an Ouija board have been explained by psychological scientists who show how minds search for patterns and anticipate responses before other parts of  our brain become aware of our actions. To learn more, read The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel Wegner. You can get a summary from former paranormal researcher, Susan Blackmore. Our minds can trick us into thinking some external unseen agent made something happen because of the way our brains function.

2. Mental illness often gets a bad name. At times, the unusual behavior patterns of people accused of being a witch or possessed by a demon have been documented well enough to match known mental disorders such as a seizure disorder. As to the witches of Salem, one psychologist, Linnda Caporael, has a theory that the phenomena were substance induced. Some symptoms of mental illness are rare so we do not see them often. Attributing hard-to-control behavior to a devil or a demon adds to the negative stereotypes that continue to create barriers for people with a mental illness.

3. Support systems work. Facing our fears in a group setting with friends and family is a great way to lessen their debilitating effects. We don’t always need a professional psychotherapist to cope with distress.

4. Defeat fear and anxiety with incompatible responses Learning to laugh at fearful and anxiety producing stimuli is a great way to fight any fear. It doesn't always work but the principle of pairing fearful stimuli with a different response like laughter does work for some.

5. Disgust promotes purity. The disgust response is a primal emotional response linked to moral rules about purity and holiness. People have a long history of disgust in response to blood and other bodily fluids. Some forms of sexual expression also invoke disgust. Sometimes people have a hard time coming up with reasons to explain why something is wrong. Moral psychology researchers like Jonathan Haidt call this phenomenon moral dumbfoundness. 

Unconsciously, people exposed to disgusting stimuli want to wash their hands. It is no surprise that some forms of sexuality were labeled dirty or filthy. Perhaps All Saints Day is an important "clean up" event following some Halloween activities.

6. The Macbeth effect is real. Like the famed Lady Macbeth who cried, “Out damned spot,” people who recalled unethical behavior unconsciously preferred handwipes to other options at the end of the study. Halloween activities that border on the unethical can link to guilt and the need to come clean. Coupled with the disgust-purity lesson we may have a good basis to celebrate November 1st, All Saints Day.

7. Death reminds us of our own mortality. The theory is known as terror management theory. Such thoughts of death promote a sense of greater connectedness to our ingroup (church, kinship, nation) and a stronger disapproval of outsiders. You can predict moral condemnation and reminders of what God hates when this response pattern is stimulated. Just thinking of the theory reminded me of hellfire sermons from childhood. Scary stuff at church for sure.

Seven Benefits of Halloween Celebrations

1. A Time to Laugh. A good scare among friends and lots of laughter is good for the soul... especially when sprinkled with treats and games.

2. A Time to Play. Watching children try to scare their neighbors, prance proudly in a fine costume, or count their treasures has always been a great part of the American Halloween tradition.

3. A Time to Care. When children face mild but common fears with a loving parent or in the context of a kid-friendly event, they can learn the value of family and friends. We all need a support system when real distress hits.

4. A Time to Strengthen Faith. Christians and others who object to some Halloween themes have an opportunity to create their own traditions and help children make wise choices that respect the tenets of their faith yet still enjoy life events.

5. A Time to face common fears within a supportive community. Facing spiders and scary costumes whilst holding a hand can send a good message about facing the stresses of life with others.

6. A Time to share. When adults offer fun and games and treats in a safe setting, children learn to share by example.

7. A Time to learn virtues. When parents and organizations set limits on acceptable costumes and activities, all children can learn to have fun within the moral values of their community while avoiding that which degrades.

R. I. P.


Disgust and Morality- Learn more about the psychological foundations of Sanctity and Degradation based on research on the basic human response of disgust and the work of psychological scientist, Jonathan Haidt and colleagues.

Macbeth effect- Learn more about the need to cleanse oneself following an impure or unethical act. It's part of human nature. Here's one link. You will find more studies on moral purity in the research literature. Here's an npr story featuring psychological scientist, Spike W S Lee
Terror Management Theory - interview with leading scientist Sheldon Solomon in Scientific American. The theory explains how people react to an awareness of their own mortality.

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