A good friend and fellow parent provided for me a cautionary tale about Halloween. His son (then a very excitable three-year old) expressed nothing but anticipation and enthusiasm leading up to Halloween. For weeks he talked about dressing up, trick-or-treating, and seeing all the other boys and girls in costume. To hear my friend explain it, his kid was completely out of his mind with expectation that dominated every conversation and every activity leading up to All Hallows Eve.
Once the holiday actually arrived, this eager toddler faithfully wore his costume all day long, and helped his parents fill the candy bowls and set out the jack-o-lantern for the expected trick-or-treaters. The sun set, and then there was the predicted ring of the doorbell. My friend accompanied his son to the door to hand out some candy to the costumed child on the other side. Door opens, and standing on the other side was an oafish teenaged boy, half zombie, and half axe-murderer victim gazing down with an open bag in hand. The toddler, who up until this point had shown nothing but unbounded enthusiasm for the concept of Halloween, was frightened beyond belief and retreated to the back of the house and refused to come out of his room for the rest of the evening. Actually, from that point on (for at least a few months) he refused to go anywhere near the door if the doorbell chimed.
Now while my friend took every precautionary step to explain, and even demonstrate, to his child the indulgence in fantasy, masquerade and fear that occurs on Halloween, his child’s perceived understanding was not quite enough to override the visceral shock and fear of the holiday’s images and iconography. Many adults would assume that children are generally unable to differentiate real from pretend, and that is why you have the resulting fear factor with children diving under beds and into their parents arms when they spot a costumed monster or see a sheeted ghost crossing their lawn. However, most children (even at a fairly young developmental stage) have the ability to distinguish, say, a real apple from a plastic apple, or a real crocodile from a wooden crocodile toy without fail. But place a child in a situation where there is insecurity or emotions are running high (for instance a doorstep visit from a bleeding zombie) and their heightened emotional state takes over. This too is the case for most adults, as is evidenced by one of the first screenings of the silent film “The Great Train Robbery” in the late nineteenth century. Moviegoers, who had little or no context for the moving image, were sent running from the theater and diving under their seats when they viewed a train barreling toward them and a gun pointed in their direction. In the context of being in a darkened theater and under the influence of an unfamiliar and new form of media, even adults are prone to cowering and taking flight.
Many child psychologist and child development experts contend that, while the iconography of Halloween may appeal to some children, the collective fantasy and ritual involved are way too intense for most children, even those with a high fear threshold. Children will often become confused about the difference between reality, and what is sometimes a rather frightening and seductive fantasy, and be enveloped in fear and panic.
So do you shield your children from anything that provokes fear or fright? Personally, I am convinced that engagement with fear (whether it is foisted upon you or you electively seek it out) is a very natural human need. There is a very particular excitement and emotion that comes from being afraid that most people yearn for. It simultaneously upsets us and then grounds us in our reality. The trick is keeping yourself securely positioned in reality, while flirting with the whirlwind dangers of horror and fright. For most adults, this is doable, but not so much for children.
As guardians and parents, we obviously need to be sensitive and tend to our children’s fears year round. Halloween presents a particularly difficult challenge for everyone involved. Do we just thrust our children into the spectacle that is Halloween and faithfully assure them that they are safe and sound? Or do we shield them from adversity and panic-inducing images until they are old enough to handle it on their own?
I would love to hear from parents, guardians, and anyone who has been scared half-to-death on what you think about the holiday and its affect on children.