Halloween: Have Things Gone Too Far?

It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses – and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. ~ Carl Jung

Somehow in the last 60 years, Halloween has become bigger and bigger and the themes and events of October 31 have become scarier and scarier. This year, Americans are projected to spend nearly $7 billion on decorations, costumes and candy, horror movies, alcohol and scarifying events. Much of that money is not spent for kid costumes or candy corn (though over $2 billion does go for sugar treats). No. The holiday has morphed from a focus on kids and fun to a time for adult entertainment and the adrenalin rush that comes with horror. Versions of Halloween have lasted through the centuries for good reason. But have things gone too far?

Creative but gruesome tableaus are showing up on front lawns. The realism of some of them is bracing. In Ohio, a very graphic display of mutilated bodies and body parts covered with gore is at the heart of a controversy about what is and is not acceptable for children to see on their walk to school and adults to confront on their way to work. Another news story reported a homeowner who had set up a gallows with a realistic body hanging from it in his front yard. Not content to scare people with a few actors jumping out at them in the dark, some haunted houses are set up with realistic bloody bodies, scenes of torture and the sounds of human screams.

Some psychologists suggest that Halloween celebrations are a way to confront our fears. If so, the excessive spending and creations of nightmarish scenes makes a kind of sense. There is much in our current world to be afraid of. The Internet makes sure that anything horrible that happens gets around fast and uncensored — be it the beheading of a journalist, the body of a child washed ashore or bodies lying in the streets after a suicide bombing.

Death by guns are on the rise, with shootings occurring in schools, shopping malls and movie theaters. The massacre at Umpqua Community College in Oregon is the 45th shooting this year. As of this writing, there have been 145 school shootings since Sandy Hook.

With frequent news of police accused of brutality and celebrities and clergy accused of child abuse, we parents are hard-pressed to believe that our children are safe when out of our sight.

Many parents hesitate to send kids out into the neighborhoods to “trick or treat,” preferring to substitute an event at a shopping mall or town center where parents are present and the treats are controlled. Parents who do send their kids out do so with adult chaperones and scan the kids’ candy hauls for treats that may be laced with drugs or apples that may contain razor blades. News articles assure parents that these worries are merely “urban legends” but the fears remain.

It should be no surprise, then, that a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that almost half of Americans say the country is less safe now than before the 9/11 attacks.

I don’t believe, as psychologist Carl Jung did, that every man “also has a shadow side of positively demonic dynamism.” I do think that the rapid spread of terrifying news made possible by social media has made us all much more aware of how easily frightened people can be led to do terrible things in the name of higher principles, how frail we are, and how tragedy can strike any one of us, changing our lives irrevocably. Those who do not allow themselves to ever entertain fears for themselves and their families aren’t paying attention. But we can’t let those fears overwhelm us if we are to function. Halloween may help us manage despite the daily and hourly reminders that life is precarious.

Consider this: Play therapists help young children traumatized by a car accident, loss or abuse act out their experience in the sandbox or playroom and, when they are ready, create a way to heal. It’s thought that by playing out their fear with toys the children quite literally “cut it down to size” and develop a sense of power and efficacy.

Adults can have as much difficulty processing their anxiety as children, especially when words fail them. The current trend to make Halloween a darker and scarier event may be a culturally permitted outlet for adults’ anxious state of mind. Like the valve on a pressure cooker, shocking Halloween displays, hair-raising haunted houses and frightening midnight hayrides give us a way to surface the constant background noise of atrocities and loss and symbolically “let off steam.” By dressing up as ghosts and spirits and acting out contests between good and evil, we confront our anxieties, our values and, indeed, our own mortality.

I do wish that adults would exercise good judgment about what to put on front lawns for all to see. Children have enough to cope with without having to manage adult terrors made visible. But I do understand that for some people, being scared silly makes the scary sillier. Just keep it in the privacy of your backyard, please.

Most of the time, most of us probably don’t do such heady thinking about the meaning of Halloween. We just enjoy parts of it — or don’t. But regardless of whether we give it our conscious attention, the ethos of the day is all around us. So I’ll leave you with this wisdom from an early nineteenth-century Halloween postcard:

On Hallowe’en the thing
you must do
Is pretend that nothing
can frighten you
An’ if somethin’ scares you
and you want to run
Jus’ let on like
it’s Hallowe’en fun.

Grim reaper photo available from Shutterstock