Perhaps, a few millennia from now, archaeologists from another world will study how we earthlings experience fear. If they do, they will notice several incongruous things. First, humans of the early 21st century swallowed a lot of expensive medication to avoid anxiety. Second, humans of the same era, celebrating an ancient and misunderstood holiday in October, paid fees to go to haunted houses created for the occasion, in order to be scared out of their minds. I wish them luck in sorting it out.
Psychologists, pundits and bloggers have for years been writing about Halloween. Some think we like the experience of feeling scared, because it releases a blast of hormones in the brain, much like fast cars and bungee jumping; the experience of fear is exhilarating. Others think that what we seek is the experience of facing our terrors, and proving that we can outlast them; the reward is not the terror but the relief when it’s over, and you can breathe again. What if we think of Halloween zombies, spiders and grim reapers as symbols of our personal demons, the things that we would rather not face? The haunted house dares us to tolerate the encounter. I can do it, you can do it, say your friends. Jungians suggest that we use creepy images to experience out there, aspects of our unknown selves, the parts that scare us silly, peering at us from the other side of a creaky door in our own psyche. Does your Halloween fright seem more like a thrill, a conquest, or a peek into a deep mystery?
Once a year our Halloween rituals invoke some spooky stuff, and it’s ok to be scared in the company of your friends; in fact it’s better when shared. Here’s the thing: the whole time that you are in the house, a silent part of you knows that you are safe. We are willing to play along, putting aside what we know: that the cavern of doom is made of plywood, latex and dry ice, because the scary experience does something for us. Meantime, there is some part of our psyche that we trust to keep us safe; we don’t confuse a haunted house with a trip to a dangerous part of town at 4am.
A paradox: there are people who live with anxiety as a shadowy, hated daily companion; once a year, we go looking for it, and they do not have to feel so strange. A hidden gift: maybe we can get better acquainted with the part of ourselves that we take into our haunted houses, to reassure us that we are safe all along. If so, we can also find a way to face the ordinary things that scare us, when the bats have disappeared back into their cavern. The experience of anxiety about everyday things – fears of getting lost, or being forgotten, or of flying – has an inner ally, a wise chaperone who waits while we wander in the dark. Anxiety is a powerful thing, and maybe it shouldn’t be the one who holds the car keys.