Editor’s Note: Jacqueline Woolley is a professor and chair of the Department of Psychology who studies children’s understanding of reality at The University of Texas at Austin. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
You might have noticed that Halloween decorations have changed since you were a little kid.
Things have taken a dark turn, and alongside the jack o’ lanterns, bedsheet ghosts and startling ghouls, it’s not so unusual now to find, even in the placid suburbs, grisly decorations featuring too-real-looking humans meeting a violent end: hooks in their skulls, knives in their bodies, or even depictions of human victims of hangings.
What’s wrong with this, you might ask, if the goal of Halloween is to scare and be scared? The answer is that this crosses the line from the fantastical realm into reality. And that’s not what Halloween is all about.
I’m a developmental psychologist who studies how children distinguish fantasy from reality. My take on Halloween is that it’s a playground in which children can contemplate and navigate the distinction between life and death, and between fantasy and reality.
Think about the costumed creatures that populate the streets on this holiday – ghosts, skeletons, vampires and zombies (we’ll leave out the pop culture figures for the purposes of this discussion: your “Elsa”, from Frozen, your Spider-Man…). These beings toe the line between the living and the dead, with one foot in the real and one in the imaginary world.
All of them have enough attributes of real humans to make them relatable – they all have heads and bodies, they move, they look around. At the same time, they differ from us in just a few keys ways – ghosts, for example, fly instead of walk, vampires live forever. This combination of attributes, according to scientists, makes these beings especially salient and memorable.
Death is a scary subject for many people, but one with which we all, arguably, need to become more comfortable. Insert death into a fantasy world and it loses some of its allure and becomes more accessible.
In addition to dressing our children as these creatures on Halloween, we decorate our houses with them. Ghosts flutter from trees and skeletons dangle from railings.
All of this, the costumes and the decorations, creates a world in which children can experience the blurry area between life and death and the emotions that might accompany this netherworld – perhaps fear, perhaps disgust– all while mostly feeling perfectly and comfortingly safe.
They feel safe and are safe because it’s all experienced in a fantasy world. That’s the key to a successful Halloween experience.
Step back for a moment and consider one of the most natural and pervasive activities in which young children engage: pretend play. Many have argued that the purpose of pretense is to provide children with experience dealing with real-world grownup issues, such as cooking food and driving cars. But there’s a reason we don’t give young children real, sharp knives with which to practice slicing onions, or real cars to drive around.
The point is for them to encounter the challenges of real life and its attendant emotions in a safe space, one in which there are few real-world consequences. Halloween does this.
It works for adults, too.
Think about the increasingly popular (and increasingly scary!) haunted houses for grown-ups. The primary goal here is the same – to be scared, but safe. Beings leap out at you unexpectedly, you’re hit in the face with slime, creatures scream at you, you lose your way in the dark. But, critically, no one ever really gets hurt, and you know this when you decide to go inside.
So, how to know when your Halloween decorations have crossed the line from scary-safe into something closer to terrorizing?
Think about whether you’re depicting something that both could really happen and might generate a negative emotion. These kinds of images will certainly give children the opportunity to experience fear but not in a way that makes them feel safe, and, importantly, not in a way that will increase their comfort with the negative emotions they generate.
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Tragically, too many real people have been wrongly hanged in the history of this country, and hanging has, unfortunately, become a leading and increasingly common method of suicide in this country.
In contrast, the creepy hand reaching up from the grave on my front lawn isn’t something that could really happen, and children know this. It’s scary (and fun) to entertain the thought that the dead person under there might come out, but deep down we know that it’s not going to grab us. That is the essence of Halloween.