I used to love horror flicks and haunted houses in my teens and twenties. I often find myself this time of year, in my thirties, reflecting on a younger me’s affinity for fright and gore. Nowadays, if I watch horror, I gravitate more towards monster flicks than slasher films. Think zombies, vampires, werewolves, and aliens. As far as I can tell, my preference has something to do with the surrealism afforded by the more fictional scenarios because, let’s face it, murder is real.
When I used to lean more towards the slasher films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, House of 1000 Corpses, and 80s classics featuring Freddy, Jason, & Myers, they got a bigger rise out of me than monsters could. (See this article about whiteness in horror films.)
The scariest characters to me in The Walking Dead, for example, are the living, not the walkers (zombies).
There are some theories about why some folks gravitate towards horror. From The Psychology of Fear: “The enjoyment some people get from fear is likely not from fear itself but from ‘the physical and emotional release that follows scary situations’… For certain individuals, the desire to feel fear is a manifestation of an adrenaline-seeking personality… Horror entertainment can trigger the fight-or-flight response, which comes with a boost in adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine while viewers are in a safe space…in short, ‘fear floods our brains with feel-good chemicals,’ … Some individuals ‘have a harder time screening out unwanted stimuli in their environment…’ They are more likely to have negative physiological and psychological reactions to horror.”
With all the very real danger, heartache, and cruelty in the world, there are many that don’t need reminding.
I’ve grown to be mindful, in my Halloween celebrations, of costumes and decor that may be traumatizing or triggering. Especially bloody stuff, like severed limbs. In When Halloween is Real, Megan Devine speaks to how “neighborhood yards full of hangings, of throats slit, of hands rising up out of vats of water” are horrifying “when you have lived these things…when it’s not seasonal ephemera, but a scene stitched into your heart and mind, a scene you have lived, for real.”
Imagine how many folks have found a loved one that completed suicide, by hanging for example, and are then inundated by hanging skeletons and corpses every October. There’s no way for them to choose not to engage when these displays are right outside their door, on their way to work, across from their child’s school, and so on.
I remember driving by a local ER one Halloween on my way to work. There were costumed folks walking by the hospital covered in fake blood, one with an axe sticking out of their skull. I thought to myself about how uncomfortable it could be to have to witness something like that as an ER goer, showing up to be with a freshly injured loved one that may have just been mangled by a car crash, or some other kind of accident, or assault.
I attended Denver’s Zombie Crawl a few times, years ago, and while I enjoyed zombieing it up, I did struggle with the thought of how many people were unsuspectingly caught in the midst of a mass of bloodied bodies and gunshot wounds. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people descend upon downtown Denver for the event annually, and being that it’s a central hub for connecting bus routes, as well as the workplace and/or home to many, I can only imagine how traumatizing it could be for some. One year, there was an unfortunate string of real-life assaults on zombies, and paramedics arriving on scene couldn’t differentiate between fake blood and real blood.
From a neurological standpoint, our amygdala and sympathetic nervous system can’t always differentiate, either. Neurocinematics, counts on it.
This freshly minted piece, Trick-or-Trauma: The Complex Ethics of The Haunted House Industry was a worthwhile read for me, and brought to light things I’d never even considered. “I noticed that all of our paint formulas were for white skin, even though some of our life casts were of people of color…What do the sales trends in this industry say about how they, and we, view not only bodies but the people who live inside them? Which bodies are worth pity, and which bodies deserve fear?”
Though I still very much love Halloween, my preferred aesthetic has evolved to be much more light hearted. More glitter and bows. Less blood and guts. Cute ghosties, spidey friends, and of course, pumpkins galore.
In fact, I asked myself just this year why exactly it is that I do love Halloween so much. Not that I need to justify my love, per se, but how often do we do things, like things, or participate in things just because? Just because it’s the way it’s always been. Just because everyone else is doing it. What areas of our lives could benefit, both ourselves and others, from giving them a little more thought? I’ll admit, my introspection yielded some interesting (and sad) insights from childhood. I loved Halloween as a kid because:
- Coming from a home where we didn’t get a lot of candy or sweets, the abundance of free candy was a big win (although it also contributed to dysfunction around scarcity/restriction and sneaking/binging).
- I felt connected to my community, going door-to-door, and saying hello. Now that we live in a time of greater isolation and transience, a time when neighbors rarely know each other’s names, looking back, I loved how Halloween was a time to be neighborly. (Minus the judgment passed on neighbors not handing out candy).
- I got to be someone else for a day. I didn’t like being me. I didn’t like my life. So getting to pretend, or hide behind a mask, if you will, was a welcomed respite.
- As for the fear factor, as an abuse survivor, I could engage willingly (at least to some degree) in scary things while having some sense of control, which was not something I had access to when at the mercy of my abusers.
I love Halloween as an adult because of the cooler weather, apple cider, and carving pumpkins. I love cute and spooky crafts. I love creative, sassy, and funny costumes. I love a good (or bad) Halloween pun. I love handing out goody bags. I love that it’s the anniversary of sappy pre-dating love confessions between me and my now husband. I love that it’s a way I feel connected to my dead brother Robert, who had Halloween decorations up in his home when he died in mid-June.
And, yes, I do still like to feel scared sometimes, ideally on my terms.
As we journey through this life, growing, learning, and hopefully healing, and as we make concerted efforts to know-better-do-better in our everyday lives so that we may do less harm to ourselves, others, and to our planet, let’s not leave how we Halloween, out.
If Halloween is a joy for you, I hope you have a happy one.
And if this is a hard time of year for you, for any reason, I send my love.