Most of those dressed in costume for Halloween are children, but the holiday isn’t just for kids. While most children enjoy the fun of spooky decorations, parties, dressing up, and accumulating candy, traditional trappings of the holiday can serve different psychological functions for young and old. The blend of beautiful, humorous, horrific and heroic  Halloween imagery reflects the tension inherent in a holiday that celebrates conflicting emotions. 

Despite the potential for scaring the youngest children, images of death—skeletons, ghosts, monsters, devils and tombstones—can also help them come to terms with confronting their fear of the unknown. We help them overcome their fear by pairing the images with happier fare, including pumpkins, hayrides, parties and candy. Other holidays are characterized by unambiguous positive images and experiences, such as Christmas reindeer and snowmen, presents and Santa Claus. The absence of conflicting emotion provides no motivation for distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Scary constructs encourage young children to find certainty that witches, vampires and ghouls are not real. The experience of taking off the mask and putting the costume away is a convincing demonstration of distinguishing the fake from the genuine.

That young children most often choose the good is obvious. The most popular costumes for the youngest children reflect their love for the ideal. They choose to be princesses, superheroes, or their favorite animal or fictional character. Such pretend enables children to try on different identities, different visions of what they might want to be, without the commitment adulthood will one day impose. The experience of assuming temporary identities also grants children a sense of control, if only briefly, in contrast to their lack of control in a world that is very hard to understand.

The most popular costumes chosen by adults, on the other hand, reflect satire, sexuality, and macabre representations of witches, zombies, and vampires. Having resolved reality-testing confusions of childhood, adults can relive the joy of the experience by extending it to their children and by re-entering it on a more mature level. The darker interests that are appealing to adults are evident in the resurgence of popularity of zombie themes in films, television shows, and video games. The Walking Dead, Grimm, World War Z, In the Flesh, The Returned, and Zombie Night are recent examples of the zombie genre that has grown in popularity since the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.

In young children, the unknown they fear can take form in their imagination as monsters, goblins and ghouls. In adults, the unknown that is feared defies imagination. The unknown of greatest interest, because it is unknowable and inevitable, is death and its aftermath. Although belief varies across religious affiliation groups, at least three quarters of Americans believe that life continues after death. More sophisticated medical techniques have enabled more people to spend longer periods of time suspended between life and death before being resuscitated to rejoin the living. Interest has grown in accounts of continued consciousness following clinical death, or near-death experiences (NDEs). As affiliation with organized religion has weakened, uncertainty about the meaning and nature of death and beyond has increased. A growing number of older Americans, especially Baby Boomers, have begun organizing gatherings to discuss issues surrounding death, usually considered a taboo subject. Referred to as Death Dinners, Death Parties, or Death Cafes, the get-togethers allow attendees to explore serious concerns about death and dying.

Within this cultural context, the image of the walking dead encapsulates our greatest fears. Assuming death is the final exit from this world leaves the question of whether or not life survives the end of the body. The possibility of the dead returning, however, houses even deeper fears. According to a YouGov Omnibus survey taken during May, 2013, 14% of Americans believe there is at least a small chance of a zombie apocalypse actually happening. Other surveys suggest that nearly half of Americans believe that the dead can return as ghosts or apparitions. While belief in a ghostly encounter can be comforting to someone hoping for reunion with a loved one, the possibility of an unwanted visitor can be terrifying. When images of the uninvited are cloaked in rotting bodies, the imagination ignites emotional responses that expose the darkest of human reactions. Zombies free us to unleash unmitigated anger, hostility and aggression. There is no need or possibility for forgiveness, mercy, compassion, redemption or guilt. It can be unsettling to realize that we have the capacity for unrestrained destruction. In a culture ever more willing to deny the existence of God, even more frightening is the possibility that the assumption of absolute finality might be wrong. We are most afraid of letting the supernatural into our lives, and zombies confront us with the ultimate threat—that of immortal evil. After all, you can’t kill what is already dead.

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