Nearly every year I write a blog post for Halloween. I have reflected upon the value of this holiday as a sacrament for a post-religious age and a valuable opportunity for transgression and release and the possibilities of transformation. For 2017 I’ll consider how Halloween might relate to this age of anxiety.
The 2017 Halloween season was bookended by two major news stories. October began with the largest mass shooting in American history and it concluded with the indictment of President Trump’s campaign advisors. No, this is not a political essay. I’m not going to preach about guns (one way or the other) and I’m not going to slander Halloween by making it about Donald Trump. But these two stories nicely encapsulate a growing sense of instability and the ongoing loss of faith in our ability to solve our problems.
How might this relate to Halloween? This is the season of fear and the time for fearful experiences deliberately sought out. In anxious times, this activity might seem superfluous. Between reports of mass shootings and corruption as well of stories of sexual assault there seems to be plenty of angst to go around. But there is a difference between the anxiety we feel watching the news and the fear we experience while screening a scary movie, reading a ghost story, or visiting a haunted house. The anxieties of the everyday are complex and ongoing but also dull. They wear on us the way the tide erodes the seashore. The thrill of contrived fear is intense but limited. It has a specific beginning and end and is therefore graspable. And mortal fear—even if it is just simulated—is satisfying because it is so immediate. It is also usually solvable. Stories in which the hero drives the stake through the vampire, exorcises the possessed daughter, or just survives the night provides us with a sense of agency and closure.
Earlier this year I attended a workshop on civility in the workplace. The presenter described the state of being “flooded” with adrenaline when we are angry and she explained that we are physiologically incapable of rational thought in that state. The culture of this moment resembles that psychological condition. Hyper-partisanship, the politics of outrage, and the disenchantment brought about by social-media have created a culture that is flooded. We are all stewing in our own outrage, unable to communicate, and ready to lash out at one another.
In stressful and anxious times, we need specific and controlled dosages of fear. The good clean scare of a horror movie or a haunted house not only reinvigorates us but it also exorcises our pent up anxieties from everyday stresses and uncertainties. And with some of that anxiety diminished we are able to think clearly, cope with those daily challenges, and start to address them constructively.
Fear can also be a bonding experience. This is most dramatic among soldiers returning from combat and there are plenty of stories about the unity and brotherliness forged among men and women facing mortal terror. In a lighter way, the same principal explains why horror films are such popular date movies. A scary story is a manageable traumatic experience. When we watch a good, intense scare with another person we bond with them. And if we can all get scared together through a popular movie, tricks or treats, or a shared holiday, we can establish some commonalities.
So let’s all get scared this Halloween, if only a little, for our own sanity and for the sake of the world we live in. The world is a scary place but sometimes we need to conjure up a little illusion in order to face reality.