It’s the time of year when all the ghosts and goblins, witches and monsters, superheroes and villains don their Halloween best and head off to trick-or-treat, party or walk through a haunted house. Why do we dress up for the holiday? What do our costumes say about us? Why do we love to be frightened on this night in the year? We talk to a psychologist and a haunted attraction specialist about these issues, and also take a look at where some of our Halloween traditions came from.
- Ben Armstrong is co-owner of Netherworld Haunted House in Atlanta, and president of America Haunts, an organization of the top haunted attractions in the U.S.
- Dr. Janina Scarlet is a clinical psychologist, scientist and self-proclaimed “full-time geek.” She’s also a practitioner of “Superhero Therapy,” and is coming out with a book by that title next July.
15-43 Scary Stuff: Halloween frights and traditions
Gary Price: Halloween is upon us, and all of the kids – and many, many adults – can’t wait to get all dressed up and head out for an evening of fright and fun. But why? What is it about this holiday that fascinates us so much and has through the centuries? We talked to a horror specialist and a psychologist about the topic and looked into the history of Halloween to find some answers. Ben Armstrong is co-owner of Netherworld Haunted House in Atlanta, and president of America Haunts, an organization of the top haunted attractions in the U.S. He says that some people think Halloween has its roots in a Celtic harvest festival called Samhain and the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds. Others say it was derived from the Christian celebration of All Hallows’ Eve, the day before All Saints Day. But no matter who started it, Halloween has a lot in common with each culture…
Ben Armstrong: It’s a harvest celebration. It’s at the time of the year where the nights become longer, where it starts to get a little colder. Almost in the classical, mythological death and rebirth cycle, it’s the period where we enter into winter. So it’s the start of death, if you will. So it’s both a celebration of the harvest, but it’s also a time when the veil is thin, and people think about the dark, and they think about ghosts, and they think about ancestors. So it’s always sort have been that tradition – the tradition of the harvest tied with the celebration of the harvest, tied with the darker part of the year, the time when it gets a little colder.
Price: Cold days and early nights lend themselves to the feeling of impending doom and death and all things creepy and scary. Even carving the pumpkin has its origin in a dark and unsavory character…
Armstrong: The pumpkin imagery is tied to the concept of the Jack o’ Lantern. And there was a character named Jack who was so rotten, even the devil didn’t want him. So he set him loose to roam the Earth with a burning ember, and it was actually in a turnip. He would have to roam the Earth with this burning ember in a turnip. And then when the Irish immigrants came over to America, they found a much better thing since it’s kind of hard to carve out a turnip, so they found the pumpkin and that became the Jack o’ Lantern and it kept the name of Jack who’s the traditional character in the story.
Price: Of course black cat images are everywhere on Halloween and that’s because they were thought to be the familiars of witches and very unlucky to come across. Armstrong says that the holiday has traveled from Ireland to America and now back to Europe where children and adults both take part.
Armstrong: I was just over in England a few months ago at a very large amusement park there called Alton Towers and I discovered that they have a huge Halloween celebration. I mean the theme parks have embraced Halloween like no one’s business. I mean it’s actually the second largest money-making holiday after Christmas that we have. And the other thing that’s happened with Halloween is that it was a kids’ holiday, but it sort of kind of grown into an adults’ and young adults’ holiday. Now a lot of the traditions that were formerly trick-or-treating, you know 20, 30 years ago, now there’s a big focus on Halloween parties. There’s a focus on going to haunted attractions.
Price: Unlike family holiday times like Thanksgiving and Christmas, Armstrong says that Halloween has become more of a party time, like New Year’s Eve. And with the Halloween party come the mask, the make-up and the costume. We asked Dr. Janina Scarlet about that aspect of the holiday. Scarlet is a clinical psychologist, scientist and self-proclaimed “full-time geek.” She’s also a practitioner of “Superhero Therapy,” and is coming out with a book by that title next July. She says that costumes allow us to hide our true selves for a while and become someone whose attributes we might admire…
Janina Scarlet: There’s something really exciting about dressing up, about pretending to be someone we’re not. We’re usually going throughout our day completely maybe inhibited or confined by our environment or social rules but when we put on a costume, maybe we can pretend to be someone different. We can almost try on a different lifestyle for a second and at that moment maybe we don’t have to be as inhibited. Maybe it can be really exciting to do that. So, for that reason, many people actually really enjoy dressing up as different characters, sometimes even dressing up as completely opposite characters of their true personality.
Price: Scarlet says that the character you choose may say something about your personality – that you’re heroic or like a certain time period in history — or not…
Scarlet: It means different things to different people. There’s not one blanket statement for everyone. For some people they just like certain costumes or certain characters. For others, they like to dress up as the very heroes that inspire them. For example, some people always go as Batman, for example, or Batgirl because they really admire these characters and they want to be like them. Others like to dress as villains, and I have some concerned parents sometimes contacting me and asking me what does it mean if their child wants to dress up as the Joker from Batman? And it doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes it’s just fun to pretend to be bad, and usually the people that dress up as villains are not the kind of people that would do anything like what the character they selected would do. It’s fun to role-play sometimes. Game-play and role-play is actually very healthy for people. When we’re little we play all the time. But when we grow up, we kind of lose that ability.
Price: Historically, Scarlet says that dressing up in costumes and masks has given individuals in groups a sense of cohesiveness. Think of the Ku Klux Klan and their white robes and pointed masks…
Scarlet: For people in organizations like the KKK, it’s about that kind of unity, unfortunately in a very negative light, and there’s a phenomenon happening called “de-individuation” where individuals that are a part of this group might lose their identity and the group will be their identity when they’re all wearing the same kind of an outfit. You see similar kinds of things happening when people are all putting on the same uniform. So not necessarily in a bad light, but actually in a good light where there’s this kind of unity happening in a very positive way, for example in the military or in the police officers or other places that wear uniforms. So in that kind of way, wearing certain outfits that all are the same might actually be a really good thing.
Price: Halloween costumes are sometimes funny, sometimes heroic and a lot of the time – scary. Why is it that we want to be scared? We go to haunted houses, horror movies and allow ourselves to be frightened on this day like no other.
Scarlet: When we’re afraid, too, we kind of bond together and when we’re close to other people who are also afraid, our bodies actually release oxytocin that makes us feel good. So we can be scared and excited at the same time.
Price: It’s not so much the chance to be horrified that makes people go to haunted attractions, though. Armstrong says it’s more the element of surprise…
Armstrong: Now when I go into a haunted attraction, I’m not truly afraid of the haunted attraction. But if I open myself up to observe what is going on around me, I can be startled just like anybody. Because that’s the key aspect, almost anyone can be startled and that is a sudden shock — someone jumps up, there’s a loud noise, something unexpected happens – and that, almost anyone can experience that. And that is a thrill. You have a rush of adrenalin, afterwards you feel good. If you’re scared and it’s something truly horrifying that’s happening to you, that’s a bad feeling. That’s a feeling like where you’re like sick in your stomach. But when you get startled, and then immediately you realize you’re safe and you laugh, it’s a great feeling.
Price: Armstrong is in the business of scaring people with his haunted attraction. You can find them in almost every city in the country this time of year, whether it’s at an amusement park or an old house. But what makes a good haunted attraction these days?
Armstrong: To the haunted house-going public in general, people just love a traditional haunted house where it’s scary, it’s fun and in these days has a very high production value. The modern attractions you see, they offer amazing special effects, offer projections, spinning tunnels, incredible characters, lots and lots of actors, lots of excitement. So when picking an attraction, I suggest you look for one that really has the production value, you can see what it’s about. It’s like going to a blockbuster movie, you know. Look at the marketing material, talk to your friends and pick one that seems good for you.
Price: Even the experts can be scared at Halloween, as our guests can attest to…
Armstrong: I get scared by mundane things. I get scared by rain on a busy night, you know? I get scared by things that make it hard to operate my business. I’m not afraid of the dark, or particular critters or any of that, it’ more a, the more mundane things that people (in business) are afraid of, I’m afraid.
Scarlet: Well, zombies, but that’s probably scariest, and I love Walking Dead and at the same time zombies freak me out.
Price: Zombies? They don’t even exist in real life! Scarlet says that psychologically, people are more scared of things they don’t know about than in the real things in the world. You can learn more about Dr. Janina Scarlet and her upcoming book, “Superhero Therapy” on her website, Superhero-Therapy.com. To find out more about haunted attractions in your area, Ben Armstrong suggests you check out America haunts.com and Hauntworld.com. You can find out more information on our site at Viewpointsonline.net. I’m Gary Price.
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