A (somewhat) scholarly view
Halloween: A contraction of All Hallows’ Eve, the day before the Western Christian feast of All Saints (ie. the first of November) and initiates the season of Allhallowtide (ie. the Celtic name for Halloween). It is a direct derivative of the Celtic (Irish) festival of Samhain, complete with bonfires from which they would light fires for the winter and to frighten away evil spirits. As the holiday transitioned to the New World, it became largely nonreligious.
As we are now well into the millennium on this day of our Lord 2023, the irrepressible profit lusting juggernaut of American economy has elevated the Halloween holiday into the stratospheric realm of commercial viability, second only to Christmas as a cash cow. With Halloween just around the corner, professional number crunchers expect this year’s Halloween merchandise profit to be well over $12.2 billion, surpassing last year’s record of $10.6 billion. The figures don’t lie: there’s money in being scared.
Why then, is a celebration meant to scare the bejesus out of us so popular? What is the appeal of having our basic emotions plucked by the prospect of impending doom?
The science behind our screams
“In looking at the impact of voluntary, arousing, negative experiences (known as VANE for short), researchers have largely focused on the physiological changes that can occur. But, along with sweating, rapid heart rate, and hyperventilation, new evidence suggests that VANE exposure can also play an important role in helping people learn how to handle stress.”
—Romeo Vitelli Ph.D., in Psychology Today
Fear has been with us throughout our existence. It provides stimulation for those basic instincts necessary for our survival, especially when confronted by real world dangers when we need that extra burst of energy/strength to overcome insurmountable barriers. In trying to overcome fear, our breath quickens and becomes more intense, the heart beats faster, we perspire freely, and perhaps most importantly, we get that “adrenaline rush” which is essential for the “fight-or-flight” reaction for organisms.
Horror aficionados may be compared to “adrenaline junkies” or thrill seekers, who actively seek out intense or dangerous experiences to get that “rush” similar to those who get the same results from narcotics. This has been validated,” according to Dr. Christopher Dwyer in Psychology Today.
“When we get scared, we experience a rush of adrenaline and a release of endorphins and dopamine. The biochemical rush can result in a pleasure-filled, opioid-like sense of euphoria,” Dwyer said.
Of course indulging in scary movies in the sanctuary of a theater (or thanks to recent technology, within the privacy of one’s home) is safer and much more antiseptic.
This pastime is one that can be collaborative as well. As Vitelli notes, “Most people don’t go to see scary movies or watch scary television shows alone…they prefer to have family and friends on hand to share what they are experiencing.”
A dark perspective
“...The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any Black man, and not only Blacks—many, many others, including white children— can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.”
—from “The Devil Finds Work (1976),” James Baldwin’s book-length essay about his relationship with American cinema.
People of color have long been a presence in cinematic horror, usually relegated to roles which reinforce social stereotypes or tropes (storytelling devices with symbolic or referential meanings). Initially presented as brutish and bestial savages (played by Caucasians in burnt-cork makeup) hellbent on defiling wholesome society in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic “The Birth of a Nation,” the Black persona in celluloid morphed into comic relief in the early days of cinema, (possibly to neuter the perception of sexual predators) as in roles utilizing the pop-eyed stare in reaction to fearful situations. Character actors who served in these demeaning roles as servants/handymen included Willie Best, Stepin Fetchit, and Mantan Moreland.
As society progressed along with the benefits of political correctness, the lot of the Black actor improved as well, though shackled with the yolk of stereotype. With the winding down of the 20th century came the popularity of a sub-genre of stalk-and-murder movies dubbed “slasher” films. These in turn brought with them a new series of tropes, especially the “final girl (who survives to the end of the film due to her moral superiority in avoiding sex or drugs and alcohol),” and the lesser known “Black guy dies first.”
These attributes in turn provided fodder for endless study by critics and scholars of pop culture.
Clinical Affirmation and the
imprint of scared memory
“…perhaps Halloween is the whitest holiday of them all. It is a day dedicated to all things dark and scary. It must be nice to have so much privilege that you need to set aside a day to be afraid. Do you know what day feels like Halloween for black people? The days that end in “y.”
—from “Every Day Is Halloween for Black People,” by Michael Harriot in The Root on
Oct. 28, 2016.
There is a train of thought among many, including those in the mental health community, that horror movies can be a coping mechanism. The option of going into a darkened room, surrounded by patrons with similar interests, then having your emotions aroused by an artificial environment secure in the knowledge that you are free to leave that environment at the end of the screening.
Cheryl Grills, a long time faculty member at Loyola Marymount University, began her career path specifically to address the root causes of distress within the African American community, and to ease the strain of living in a hostile environment.
With family roots in the South, she migrated to the north as a child, specifically to Boston, which has its own particular legacy of inhospitable actions towards the darker races. Her most potent Halloween memory came during an innocent session of “trick or treat.” Upon knocking on a particular door, she was confronted by a youngster approximately her age who, instead of delivering the expected “treat,” bestowed a painful “trick” by punching her in the stomach and slamming the door. This in turn impacted her later career choices.
“I decided as a teenager that I wanted to help ease the strain of racism and dreams denied in our communities,” she remembers.
“I also quickly learned that general western psychology was not addressing the root causes of distress among Black people.”
This memory resurfaced later during her undergraduate tenure at Yale University. After studying at the library, she stepped outside to encounter a mob of White youth engaged in revelry. As she approached them she realized the group was inebriated, and more alarmingly they were draped in what appeared to be white bed sheets!
This brought up images of the Klu Klux Klan and their regalia of hoods and white robes, one of the most fundamental images of dread in the psyche of Black America.
Regaining her composure, perhaps because of her presence in a “liberal” bastion of higher learning, she continued on her way to discover that these reprobates were engaged in a toga party, a Greco-Roman-themed costume party common to fraternities and sororities in the United States, and immortalized in the movie “Animal House.”
As she moved into clinical work and established her own practice, these experiences informed her approach to therapy. In addition, over time Grills encountered patterns of experiences within her clientele that resonated in their repetition. These included shared episodes of discomfort such as the plight of being followed in upscale shops, or the perception of large Black men in confined spaces such as elevators with small children or women.
With all this, Dr. Grills came to the conclusion that Black people are “wired for survival,” a curious byproduct of the chronic levels of racial stress and trauma they have endured. She personally enjoys the occasional “horror flick,” noting that screenings in the company of predominantly Black patrons are a unique experience. These sessions are an interactive experience, as the audience will openly critique the on screen characters and the choices they made, especially in slasher films. This very real practice of talking back to the screen is, in itself, another potent topic for future research.