Halloween Special: Do we like being scared?

Hah-hah-hah-(this is supposed to be the sound of creepy laughter)-ppy Halloween!

Or Happy Samhuinn/Samhain if you’re a pagan.

I personally experienced the best Halloween ever during my time in Scotland. But saying “the best Halloween ever” probably sounds misleading because it suggests I’ve actually celebrated lots of Halloweens in my lifetime. So I should probably mention that I have only really celebrated Halloween once or twice in my life. You see, Halloween was never a big deal in Germany when I was growing up and I only really knew of this holiday because of the Halloween specials of some American TV shows. And even these specials were almost never broadcast on October 31, so as a kid Halloween was just a bit of an obscure American tradition that didn’t seem to be bound to a specific date.


You may ask yourself: “Hang on. When do Germans dress up like policemen/slutty nurses?” (These are literally the only two costumes that came to my mind right now…) Well, I’m happy you ask, dear reader. We have something called “Fasching/Karneval” (depending on where you live in Germany) which is usually celebrated in February. Or for a total of 6 months (if you’re from the Rhineland). So yes, we do have a holiday dedicated to fancy dress, but the only reason why it is spooky is because you have to tolerate drunks in pirate costumes. Nevertheless, I should mention that Halloween seems to have been adopted in Germany. I’ve even seen some kids in costumes today going trick-or-treating, so there you go. It was just before my time. I’m getting old, hooray.

Anyway, so I kind of started to grasp the concept of Halloween when I moved to the UK in 2005. But back then I was a fresher and everyday could have been Halloween with all the fancy dress parties happening on Sussex campus. Either way, it didn’t do much for me. I’m not a big fan of fancy dress (heresy in the UK, it seems). Fast forward to 2010 when I moved to Scotland where I saw the annual Halloween, or Samhuinn, parade on the Royal Mile. And this is where I became a fan.

It really gave me an impulse to look into this holiday which has its origins in Celtic/pagan legends and is originally called Samhain (pronounced Sow-inn), or Samhuinn in Scotland. Actually, I’m not sure if it’s spelled Samhuinn in other places too or if that’s just the Gaelic spelling. If anyone knows – let me know.

For the Celts, Samhain marked the Feast of the Dead, as well as the Celtic New Year which began on the 1st of November. That’s why Samhain kind of has two dimensions. One is the celebration of the eternal cycle of seasons, while the other is about honoring the dead. In a way, you could say that these two dimensions are intertwined because with winter came the cold and with it the “death” of many crops and, potentially, people.

The good old Celts believed that on Samhain the dead were able to mingle with the living because they were “due” to travel to the underworld on that particular day. So the Celtic priests, so called druids, built and lit large bonfires where people gathered to sacrifice animals and food to help the dead get on with their journey. The Celts also believed that the presence of the dead would make it easier to make predictions about the future. According to custom, they also dressed up in costumes or wore masks ( =animal carcasses….yumm) (BBC, Samhain, 2011).

The fire show I saw back in 2010 in Edinbugh more or less acted out the pagan legend of Samhain: Queen Mother Earth was stolen from King Summer by King Winter. Lots of stuff happened and there were lots of half-naked people spitting fire. In the end Kind Winter actually kills King Summer (GASP), buuuuut some very clever druid gave King Summer a mysterious potion allowing him to return from the dead and fight Winter to get back Mother Earth. But just not now. Later in the year. You know, after we’ve had some snow and did some skiing. Just in time when hot wine, mead and punch starts to get old and you’re like “I feel like having an ice cold corona now and this weather just doesn’t go with it. Screw you, winter.”

So, how did Samhain become Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve? Well, by 43 AD most Celtic territory, namely Ireland, many parts of the UK and northern France were conquered by the Roman Empire. Although Christianity was originally considered to be a pagan religion, it later established itself as the main religion of the Roman Empire. By then, Samhain had been integrated into two Roman celebrations: Feralia, a day in late October to commemorate the dead, and Pomona, a holiday on the 31st of October to celebrate the Roman goddess of trees and fruit (History, 2013: Halloween). But after Christianity established itself as the main religion, everyone started to get obsessed with Jesus Christ Superstar and more and more missionaries tried to “kindly convince” pagans to stop worshiping butterflies, rainbows and trees and to convert to Christianity.  Then Pope Gregory III (731-741 AD) had a brilliant idea when he said: “Hang on a minute…I know! We should stop trying to convince people that their rituals are bs ans let them celebrate their funny holidays… but, like, make it about Jesus. So then they still celebrate, but they like, celebrate what we want them to celebrate.” And everyone went “Oh Greg, you’re so brilliant.”

So under Pope Gregory, All Martyr’s Day, a previously established holiday for Christian Martyrs, was moved from May 13 to November 1. The evening before All Martyr’s Day was celebrated with bonfires and parades and became All Saints Day, or All-hallows, and eventually Halloween.

Interesting stuff, eh. But actually not my question. Halloween is all about ghosts, witches, demons, you name it…all kinds of scary creatures. I often wonder why we indulge in a holiday that celebrates scary stuff or being scared? And if you think about it, it’s not just Halloween. People seem to be attracted, even fascinated, by being scared and seem to voluntarily seek out the thrill of being scared. Why?

Well. Let’s take a look at what actually happens to your brain and body when you are scared. Like most emotions, experiencing fear is triggered by an entirely unconscious chemical process in the brain.

Imagine this scene: You’re home alone trying to go to sleep. It’s dark and quiet. Then you hear a creaking noise next door…It’s strange because nobody’s home and you can’t imagine where the creaking noise is coming from. While you start listening more intently, your heartbeat gets faster and your blood pressure is rising. Your muscles are tightening. You feel a sudden rush of adrenaline. You hear the creaking noise again. It’s dark, so no one can tell, but your pupils are dilating, and non-essential systems start shutting down. This includes your digestive system. So, perhaps it may be a good time to empty your bladder? … This, my friend, is the fight-or-flight-response, a life-saving response that saved many of your forefathers lives.

But how do we get to the fight-or-flight-response? Well, this is a bit technical, biologically speaking, so bear with me. As you all know, we have different areas in our brains that are responsible for certain emotions, tasks or reactions. Inducing fear is one of the most amazing things our brain can do because the reaction it triggers in your body readies you to run away as fast as you can (flight) or confront the cause of your fear (fight) (Layton, 2013).

Before we go on, let me introduce the 5 main protagonists in your brain here (and their names do suggest it could be a Greek tragedy):

1. Thalamus (gets sensory data, decides where to send it)

“A noise!! Hm!…What could it be? I’ll better send this over to SC, they’ll know what to do”

2. Sensory Cortex (interprets sensory data)

“Hmm…this noise…is creaking…a Creaking Noise! From Next Door! A burglar?? The wind?? A mouse?? A ghost??? A ZOMBIE????”

3. Hippocampus (connects stimuli to memories)

“What’s going on here? A creaking noise, you say? Just like 2 days ago…it was just then wind back then. Anyways, there was a bit of a storm earlier today, so it’s probably just the wind. Simmer down.”

4. Amygdala (decides on what emotion to attach to sensory information)

“Meh. What he said. The wind.”

5. Hypothalamus (decides on fight or flight)

“Ok, so you guys are saying – no running, no fighting, no sh++ing my pants?! Party poopers!! Ok body, back to sleep it is..”

Well, actually the way the process unfolded as described above was the so-called “high road” process. This means that your reaction may have taken a little bit more time, because your brain actively tried to figure out where the noise was coming from. This kind of process gives you a more precise interpretation of a certain stimulus. This also means that the stimulus wasn’t that immediately life-threatening that you had to react instantly.

Instant reactions are mostly a result of the messy “low road” in which stimuli go straight from Thalamus to Amygalda and Hypothalamus, and skip the “voices of reason” (aka sensory cortex and Hippocampus). This would look more like this.

(creaking noise)

Thalamus: “There’s a noise!!! It’s creaking!! Hmm…”


Hypothalamus: “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH! PAAAAAANIC! Run for your life!! Remember there’s a knife in the drawer…Why are my pants wet?? AAAAHHHH”

Either way Hypothalamus is the one who decides what we do fight, flight or just calm the eff down.

But still – why be afraid. We’re not exposed to the same threats as our forefathers. There are no more sabre-toothed tigers that could eat us and we don’t share caves with grizzly bears anymore. So, what are people scared of today?

Many people are afraid of certain things because they actually connect a specific fear-inducing event or negative emotion with a certain situation, object or animal. This is often called fear conditioning. Although not all dogs are dangerous, some people who were bitten once may fear all dogs for the rest of their lives.

Often, fear is rather shaped by anticipation than actual experiences or memories. Many people are scared of plane crashes even though they’ve never been in one. Other people are afraid of heights, even though they’re never experienced a tragic fall. The mere potential of potentially falling or crashing instills enough feelings of dread and horror in people that they experience real fear (Layton, 2013).

Often, fear can manifest itself as excessive or irrational in proportion to the imagined or actual danger of a situation. This is what we usually describe as phobias. Phobias are categorized into three classes: Agoraphobia (fear of not being able to escape or getting help), Social Phobia (fears of being in public, being watched or interacting socially), and Specific Phobias. Specific phobias are again categorized into four different areas: situational phobia, fear of the natural environment, animal phobia, and blood-injection-injury phobia. Between those four, there are another 350 phobias (Wood, 1999). Clearly, there’s a lot to be afraid of.

But, back to Halloween. The popularity of this holiday suggests that many people like being confronted with creatures we assume to be horrifying (I say assume because most of us have probably seen Monsters Inc which provides clear evidence that monsters are also just human). Similarly, people like watching scary movies. So do we like monsters, ghosts, killers and witches deep down inside? Why expose ourselves to creatures and situations that are frightening?

Well, because fear is exciting. Experiencing the fight-or-flight response in a controlled environment where we know nothing can actually happen to us, let’s us feel an excitement or thrill without having to actually flee or fight. In other words: Pure adrenaline rush! (LiveScience, 2013). Hypothalamus is all like: “Whooooooooooo sooooo muuuuch excitement, no running!” BUT, as Psychologist David Rudd (LiveScience, 2013) explains, being able to enjoy the thrill of fear means being able to gauge the level of harm we are exposed to. In other words, scary movies may seem much more scary to children or adult because they don’t have the same experiences or knowledge as adults to gauge the level of reality in films. This theory would also explain why many people enjoy extreme sports, such as skydiving or bungee-jumping. If the level of danger or the probability of experiencing harm is actually quite low, the sensation of experiencing fear is actually rather thrilling.

Another theory suggests that people like to sit through horror movies or go to haunted houses because the extreme relief they feel at the end of a negative experience causes immense pleasure and positive emotions (ScienceDaily, 2007).

In any case, I wish you all a very Happy Halloween/Samhain and hope you get to spend it as scared as you wish to be. I am off now to watch the very scary film ParaNorman (that’s the most scare I can handle) and eat my bat-shaped candy.



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