Columns

Malik ’18: Halloween and horror

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, October 23, 2015

Halloween is almost here, and as the holiday that I have loved since I was a small child approaches, I am excited by the sweet candy, scary movies and smiling jack-o’-lanterns that await. The fact that festivities begin at Brown a whole week earlier than the actual holiday thanks to Halloweek is icing on the haunted-house-themed cake.

But despite my excitement, I wonder if there is something behind the parties and the paper decorations of ghosts and bats hanging from the ceilings. After all, even some of the most commercialized holidays, such as Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, have valuable themes. Behind the cheesy cards and fancy dinners of Valentine’s Day lies a celebration of romantic love. Take the televised musical performances and countdown to midnight away from New Year’s Eve, and you still have a day for reflecting on the past and making plans for the future. So is there a point to Halloween?

Maybe history could help us. According to a piece written by folklorist Jack Santino on the American Folklife Center’s website, “Halloween had its beginnings in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead.” Santino explains that this festival was called Samhain and states, “The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld.” Santino further explains that those who observed the holiday “lit bonfires in honor of the dead to aid them on their journey and to keep them away from the living” and that during Samhain, “all manner of beings were abroad: ghosts, fairies and demons — all part of the dark and dread.”

An article in Live Science last year states that Nicholas Rogers, professor of history at York University, has an alternative interpretation of Samhain. But whether or not Santino’s description is accurate, it reveals an interesting idea: the possibility that Halloween might have come from a holiday in which people confronted what they found to be scary.

Horror is woven into the fabric of Halloween. Bats and ghosts, even if they are represented as mere paper decorations, are creepy, and the jack-o’-lanterns with goofy faces are still uncanny. And horror — whether it takes the form of a story spoken around a campfire, a novel featuring zombies and werewolves or a movie about demonic possession — carries a useful function. Horror allows us to confront and overcome what scares us.

Take the “Paranormal Activity” movie series, which has become a staple of Halloween in the last few years, as an illustrative example. While I haven’t seen the sequels, I think the first one is quite scary, for it holds a dark message at its center: Even in a place where you think you are secure, such as a home you share with a loved one, you are not safe. This message is unfortunately true; each night, we can’t guarantee that someone won’t invade our home and try to hurt us as we sleep.

Horror derives its strength from its power to remind us of our fears, but it simultaneously helps us grapple with what we are afraid of by using mythical or paranormal representations. The threat of a home invasion is terrifyingly realistic; therefore, horror stories have ghosts haunt people in their homes. Legends of werewolves roaming the woods serve as warnings for us to be careful of real sources of injury, such as rough terrain and animals, when traveling at night. The best examples of zombie fiction remind us that people can unleash the worst aspects of themselves when confronted with a major crisis. These representations of our true fears, shown through the genre of horror, allow us to confront difficult realities more easily.

By confronting scary truths through the representations in horror, we can overcome them. If we listen to a story or watch a movie in which scary occurrences plague the characters, we feel scared, too. But when the story is over, whether or not the characters have made it through their ordeals, we have survived, and we may feel less afraid as a result. Horror therefore is a useful tool for us to deal with the scary realities of this world, from immediate threats such as violence and illness to situations beyond our individual capabilities, such as nuclear war and the destruction of the environment. If we do not overcome these fears, we will be paralyzed and unable to proceed through life.

At its heart, Halloween can remind us that there are reasons to be afraid in life but that we can overcome what’s scary and celebrate and enjoy ourselves. So this year, keep your fears and nightmares at the very back of your mind. They might make the parties more fun and the candy even sweeter.

Happy Halloweek.

Ameer Malik ’18 is going to try not to feel too scared this Halloween. He can be reached at ameer_malik@brown.edu.