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Scared straight

Billie Grace Ward
Wikimedia Commons

Halloween highlights a great divide between children and adults. For children it is pure magic. Implicit in all the medieval mumbo jumbo about ghosts and witches is the belief in second chances. It suggests, and almost promises, that just behind the mundane curtain of suburbs and strip mallslies a much richer world where anything is possible.

Kids adore this fantasy, which is why Harry Potter was such a phenomenal success. He crossed and re-crossed the barrier between the dull quotidian and a through-the-looking-glass world that was incredibly rich and exciting. Even his school was interesting. It’s an escape fantasy of the very best kind, and we all need those.

Adults know, but would prefer not to remember, that just behind the mundane curtain of suburbs and strip malls lies another world that is exactly the same, and there is no magic train waiting to take them to another and more interesting station. Halloween, like any other fantasy, offers a temporary distraction, with its gruesome imagery and occult pagan rituals. It gives us permission to visit the fascinating but forbidden world of death and horror, which we never talk about in polite company.

We like to be frightened, just a little. There is a whole industry devoted to horror movies, and a whole literature devoted to ghosts, haunted houses, witches, zombies, werewolves, and other phenomena that do not exist and have never existed. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein launched the whole horror genre in 1818, and horror stories have never been out of style, all the way down to Stephen King in the present day.

Yet, there ought to be enough death and horror in the real world to satisfy the most ghoulish taste. People rush to the scene of any traffic accident or natural disaster, hoping to see something nasty. Dreadful wars are everywhere, being filmed in detail for comfortable home consumption. No television murder mystery is complete without a scene in the morgue. And this morbid taste is nothing new. After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 thousands of British, tourists flocked to the battlefield in Belgium to see what gruesome souvenirs they could pick up. Crypts and tombs and torture chambers have always been popular with tourists. Pompei, where dozens of ancient Romans lie mummified in Volcanic ash, is the most popular tourist attraction in Italy, closely followed by the Colosseum in Rome which was a kind of theater of death.

It all comes under the heading of entertainment from the dark side, like Halloween itself. In the modern, sophisticated, scientific 21st century we seem to have much the same tastes in horror that people had in the nineteenth, or the fourteenth, or the fourth century BC, when ancient Greek authors wrote some truly ghastly plays, that were very popular. It sounds suspiciously like a part of human nature.

This attraction to horror is typically called “Catharsis." Neuroscientists confirm that scary things like horror movies help us to deal with nightmares about the future, which suggests that we should watch a lot of them before the elections. A little scare can also be enjoyable once we realize that there is really no danger because it releases a flood of endorphins and dopamine in the brain — the pleasure of relief.

So, the way to get the best out of Halloween may be moderation: just the right amount of fear, and just the right amount of reassuring chocolate.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.