From office parties to kids in full costume attire, it’s obvious every year that Halloween is one of America’s most beloved holidays. This fall, the U.S. is predicted to spend a massive $10 billion on Halloween costumes, decorations, and candy. But why do we love Halloween so much? The answer may lie in the psychology behind our Halloween costumes and ancient traditions that are nearly two thousand years old.
Regardless of age, wearing a costume may help us temporarily escape our sense of self—which may be psychologically relieving. However, the anonymity that dressing up provides may change the way some of us behave. For better or worse, we enjoy the freedom and secrecy granted by trying on another identity, if only for the evening. Halloween costumes, be they frightening, funny, or sexy, can be a fun way to come to terms with our morbidity and the taboo aspects of our daily lives.
Halloween: Past and Present
Halloween may draw its origins from an ancient Celtic tradition known as Samhain, which means “summer’s end”, practiced nearly two thousand years ago. Celtic villagers, who lived in what is known today as Ireland, believed that disguising themselves in animal skins would drive away malicious spirits and demons from their settlements. Trick-or-treating also traces its roots back to Celtic traditions through a practice known as mumming: peasants dressing as goblins or spirits would perform an act in exchange for money or food.
Even though our current Halloween traditions look quite different, it seems as though the changing of the seasons at this time of year has always affected human psychology.
Why Do Adults Love Halloween So Much?
Adults have many reasons to love the spookiest holiday—one being that it can be fun, even freeing, to pretend to be someone else for a night. Not only does it let you do things and act in ways you might not in your everyday life, but you can also leave your problems and responsibilities behind, if only for a few hours. As adults, there are always things that drain our energy and threaten to take us away from the present moment — there are bills to pay, people to call, and to-dos to take care of. Halloween lets us shed that weight and be whoever we choose.
Halloween is also the source of several fun activities and experiences throughout the month of October—not just the day itself. From movie nights to pumpkin carving, it’s a great reason to make time to connect with friends and do something everyone enjoys.
Is Halloween Good for Mental Health? Why Can Halloween Be Therapeutic?
Halloween costumes may be a socially sanctioned way for us to tap into what’s normally thought of as unconventional. Some people just enjoy celebrating the holiday, while others may feel safe or more comfortable dressing sexily during Halloween. Others simply enjoy having an alternative identity every year. Having the freedom to dress as one wishes and have it be socially accepted could be one of the primary reasons that Halloween is loved by so many people.
On a psychological level, costumes may allow us to connect with the things that scare us. Sexuality, death, and fears of the supernatural are all part of our human experience. Though we may often feel stigmatized for our thoughts associated with these topics, one of the reasons we love Halloween may be that it allows us to come to terms with what makes us afraid.
Why Do People with Anxiety Love Halloween?
Many people living with anxiety and anxiety disorders struggle with fearing the unknown. Halloween can provide a relatively controlled exposure to fear-inducing scenarios like haunted houses and scary movies while feeling safe within their comfort zone. Going through fear and the process of anticipation, approaching the scene, being startled, and feeling relief that the scary thing isn’t real in an environment where it’s safe and normal to express fear can be a great help to people with anxiety.
The anonymity of costumes can also help give people with anxiety more confidence—inspiring a sense of play and enjoyment. This allows them to experience fears like social situations with less fear.
What Are the Psychological Effects of Halloween?
Experiments conducted by observing both adults and children have repeatedly shown that wearing a costume can influence our behavior and sense of self—for better or worse. Interestingly, one experiment found that children whose costumes render them anonymous are more likely to steal candy than those whose faces can be identified. This is common in human behavior—when we’re able to remain unidentified, we’re more likely to display antagonistic behavior toward others.
In another study, researchers noted that wearing a lab coat may unconsciously convey intelligence and competency, both when worn by ourselves or when we see others wearing a white lab coat. So, they asked the participants in their experiment to don a lab coat—only some of which were told was a doctor’s lab coat. The others were told that the coat belonged to a painter.
Those who wore the “doctor’s” coat performed better on attention-related tasks (like spotting differences between two different paintings) than those who thought they were wearing a painter’s coat. Perhaps costumes affect our sense of self, causing us to feel less inhibited by our own seemingly rigid identity.
Candy and cosplay opportunities aside, why do we love Halloween? The answer may lie in its emphasis on visceral concepts and emotions including death, fear, sex, and the supernatural. Perhaps the psychology behind our Halloween costumes lies in our desire to escape the limits of our own identity and join the ranks of the very things that terrify us most.