These days, Halloween is primarily about fun. Children get dressed up as their favourite comic book or disney characters and go around their neighbourhoods asking for candy, or going to a party. Taken out of context, it’s a really weird concept, but children look forward to it from the start of school in September and put quite a lot of effort and pride into their costumes. Candy, pumpkins, and a Charlie Brown TV special complete the festivities for most young people.
So, why do grown adults love Halloween so much? Have we co opted a holiday intended for children and made it into our month-long horror story dream? Everything from novels, to movies, to tv shows focuss on terrifying us for 31 straight days.
What’s interesting is, the modern Halloween celebration – kids in costumes, candy door to door – has only been in existence for about 100 years. The origins of Halloween itself, based on the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, actually date back more than two thousand years and the rituals associated with it were not for kids. Samhain was a harvest festival, marking the end of the growing season and the start of the darker half of the year. Participants used to dress up in scary costumes in order to fend off ghosts and evil spirits.
Our grown up Halloween celebrations are very different but have similar themes. While our harvest festivals are different (think Thanksgiving or the Niagara Region’s Grape and Wine festival), we’ve maintained the aspect of the festival that leads into ‘darkness.’ Haunted houses, horror movies, and even pumpkin carving could be interpreted as being used to ‘scare off’ our fears. We love to be scared, and we keep making new things to scare us. We dress up in costumes to escape our everyday lives. Perhaps what’s really changed is what we’re afraid of. Are we worried about evil spirits, ghosts and psycho killers? Not so much. In the western world, we tend to not worry about food security, surviving the winter, or those aspects of basic survival that our ancient counterparts had to deal with. It’s our real lives that have become the thing to fear. Paying rent, finishing midterms, dealing with our own inner demons, these are the things that we tend to be afraid of.
So when somebody says “aren’t you a little too old for Halloween?” the answer is no. Halloween being for kids is actually a recent development. Our adult interpretation is actually much closer to their original meaning. We scare ourselves to scare off our fears.