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The Psychology of Halloween (Guest Blogger)

This entry is courtesy of guest blogger Sarah-Jayne Gratton, PhD.

It’s that time of the year again when witches, ghosts and ghouls roam the streets in search of candy. No longer just a throwback to the Celtic Festival of Samhain, where the end of the Celtic year was thought to be associated with death. Today Halloween means holiday--a time for dressing up, having fun, eating candy and watching scary movies!

And it’s not just for the kids. There’s something so timelessly magical in the golden colors of fall that’s annually reflected in the glowing flames of our Jack O’Lantern smiles. Rather than feeling a creepy chill in the air, instead, many of us today associate a sense of warmth and togetherness with the date October 31st. The past associations with all things evil have today been replaced by the amusing notion of ‘a good scare’ , meaning that it’s time once again to party in ‘Halloweenland’.

The Roots of our Rituals
The commercial exploitation of Halloween didn’t begin until the 20th century for the most part and mass-produced Halloween costumes didn’t make their appearance until the 1950s, when ‘trick-or-treating’ became firmly embedded in the rituals of the holiday.

The mask-like images associated with Halloween, like the holiday itself, also have their roots in Celtic practices and likewise, their place in the modern psychology of the event. In fact, the ritual of putting on a mask to become someone else outside of ourselves is something that we have truly embraced in western society, not just as a means of entertainment, but as a means of escape.

Fear as a Release
“The basis of optimism is sheer terror.”  - Oscar Wilde - The Picture of Dorian Gray

Modern life has never been so easy - or so stressful. The dichotomy presented by advances in technology is all around us; supposedly developed to make our lives easier, psychological research suggests that they can create a mental prison of inescapable responsibility. With this in mind, the notion of a faceless boogeyman stalking us has never been more readily embraced by audiences, especially as it may well be linked to these increasingly common feelings of insecurity and disillusionment that many of us feel in the twenty-first century.

In short, there is no escape from the cell phones, the computers, the pagers and of course the net - in cyberspace everyone can hear you scream! Unconsciously, many of us may seek out a psychological release though the adrenalin-infused horror movies we choose to obsess about at this time of year. Following this release, at the movies end, and as a result of all that adrenalin being pumped through our bodies, we often experience a similarly positive physiological response, where feelings of giddiness, euphoria and later relaxation weave their addictive charm and keep us coming back for more.

The Future
As far as the future of Halloween is concerned, we can be fairly certain that its popularity will continue to grow as more and more cultures embrace its holiday and commercial appeal. In fact, with more articles than ever being written about it, more stores than ever stocking up on cards, candies and costumes in readiness for it and the television and movie studios all looking to give us the ‘fright of our lives’ on the night, it seems that the ritual of ‘selling our souls’ to the psychological motivators that keep the Halloween wheels turning may just be good for us after all.

Dr Sarah-Jayne Gratton has a PhD in Psychology and an Advanced Diploma in Psychotherapy and Hypnotherapy. She is the author of Marketing Wireless Products (Butterworth Heinemann, 2004) and her work has been published in a number of newspapers and magazines.


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