“From ghoulies and ghosties and
long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us!”
~ An old Scottish prayer
Watching a friend struggle to create an owl costume for her pre-schooler to wear this Halloween, I asked her why she didn’t persuade him to think of something simpler. “He says he wants to be an owl because it’s the scariest thing he can think of,” my friend replied.
Ahh. Precisely. Her little guy is wiser than I am. He knows instinctively what I had forgotten: From ancient times, the point of Halloween has always been to confront our fears of the dark, of death, of evil spirits and all the things that “go bump in the night.”
Death always has been and probably always will be a mystery and mysteries make people nervous. Our fears and anxieties about what happens next has driven the imagination of peoples probably since the beginning of time. Folk stories and songs and literature are full of both lovely ideas of angels in heaven playing harps and the opposite: demons dancing in the fires of a hell. As curious as we all are about what happens after death, we’re not lining up to die to find out. So we’re left to our imaginations.
Among the scariest notions of an afterlife that has been handed down to us are the beliefs and rituals practiced by the Celtic Druids 2,000 years ago in Ireland, England and parts of France. Theirs was a pagan religion with particularly vivid ideas of a dark and treacherous spirit world.
For the Druids, the turning of the year was celebrated on November 1 (called Sanhaim). It was a day to mark the death of summer and the beginning of a dark and forbidding winter. On the night before, they believed that spirits could cross from the world of the dead to the world of the living in order to look for a body to inhabit. The people wore costumes to confuse the spirits and made offerings to appease them. This is believed to be the source of our “trick or treat.” Communities built huge bonfires and made sacrifices to their gods.
All Souls Day was established somewhere around 1000 A.D.by the Catholic pope as an attempt to replace a pagan celebration with one that was sanctioned by the church. All Souls Day was also called All-hallows day and the night before began to be called All-hallows Eve. That evolved into Halloween. The celebration is believed to have been introduced to America by the waves of Irish and English immigrants in the 19th century.
By the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Halloween had become more about entertainment and less about religion, superstition, magic, and roaming spirits. Nonetheless, kids today still relive some of the ancient roots of the holiday by dressing up as ghosts and goblins and marauding the neighborhood for sweets.
These days, adults usually celebrate the day vicariously by buying and making costumes for the kids and handing out candy. But adults, especially young adults, also go to masked balls and costume parties; frequent the “haunted houses” put up by entertainment parks; and show up at work decked out in witches’ hats and clown noses. Why? Because putting on a mask lets us be someone else for awhile.
The Mask: Recognizing Our Shadow Side
A mask lets us safely explore sides of our personalities we normally keep hidden from others. It’s not at all unusual for an otherwise shy young woman to play the vamp at the costume party or for the Clark Kent in real life to dress up like Superman. It’s also not unusual for the rich to dress as beggars and the beautiful to try on being an ugly witch. For one night, we get to be our opposite, or at least another, self. For one day, some workplaces give us license to show our coworkers that we can be funnier, scarier, more glamorous, or more or less successful than everyone thinks we are.
The ancient rituals were intended to master the evils without. Carl Jung, an early 20th century psychologist who was a contemporary of Freud, believed that we also need to master the darkness within. His theory suggests that we all have a shadow side, a part of our personality that is darker and hidden from the world and often from ourselves. Interestingly, the shadow is also seen as a source of creativity and power. An unacknowledged shadow explains the apparent paradox of the man who is a pillar of his community carrying on secret affairs or the woman who is always giving so generously to others unnecessarily depriving herself.
To be a mature and moral person is to recognize our shadow side and to manage the impulses and negative qualities we find there. Children work out their fears of the bogey man or ghosts or an owl by assuming its identity and playing out their fantasies. On Halloween, we adults do much the same thing. The holiday gives the shadow a legitimate opportunity to come forward. Make no mistake: Our choice of a mask isn’t an accident. It often exposes our shadow side or an inner desire we work to control. By transforming it into entertainment, we take charge of the part of ourselves that both fascinates and frightens.
It makes a kind of sense that the one of the hottest Halloween masks this season is of Casey Anthony. Assuming the face of someone accused of murdering her own child lets people acknowledge the part of themselves that understands the desire to be freed of parental responsibility and to even think about infanticide as a way to return to the freedoms of adolescence. When they remove the mask, they return themselves to “normal” and reassert their ability to master the darker and more impulsive urges within.
“I was scared silly!” That figure of speech captures all that Halloween is about. By making our fears of the dark side “silly” with costumes and parties and by sweetening them with candy and other treats, we exercise some control over them.
By holding onto this odd remnant of an ancient festival of the dead, we give ourselves an opportunity to teach our children that monsters and witches and ghosts, however fearsome, aren’t real and that fears are something we can master. Just as important, we adults remind ourselves that to be a full adult is to master the darker and impulsive forces within us and to accept that death is part of the cycle of life.
- Halloween Safety Tips
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- Halloween: Thoughts and Suggestions (for parents of kids on the autism spectrum)
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2011). It’s Halloween: Recognizing Our Shadow Side. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 28, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/its-halloween-recognizing-our-shadow-side/0009782
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.