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Believing in Ghosts, Goblins, and the Candy Witch

When do children distinguish fantasy from reality?

Source: kryzhov/Shutterstock

With the fast approach of Halloween, children have their minds on ghosts, goblins, and witches, along with the other popular fantasy characters that take the spotlight in October. They’ll dress up as their favorite characters for trick-or-treating, and may even pretend to be those characters as they travel to ring neighborhood doorbells in search of chocolate treats.

Unfortunately, fantasies of ghosts and goblins can also come with some scary imagery, followed by the inevitable fears of monsters that might be hiding under the bed. The reason children have these vivid fantasies—both the fun and scary ones—is that they have active imaginations, and, especially in the preschool years, may have trouble distinguishing between what’s real and imaginary. They know some things, like that SpongeBob SquarePants and Batman come from different worlds and don’t hang out. And when presented with familiar characters like Snow White and George Washington, even 3-year-olds can accurately report who’s real and who isn’t. The problem is that they aren’t so sure when you present them with a brand-new character.

Consider what happened when researchers introduced 3- and 4-year-old children to a new Halloween character: The Candy Witch. Children were told that the Candy Witch was a nice witch who visited children’s houses on the night of Halloween and took their candy, replacing it with a brand-new toy. They were shown a photograph of a doll depicting the Candy Witch looking happy and friendly. Some parents even played along: They “called” the Candy Witch on the phone the night before Halloween and asked her to visit their house. Then, after their children were asleep, the parents swapped their candy for a new toy, like the "Tooth Fairy" swaps newly-fallen teeth for money in some households. Not surprisingly, most 3- and 4-year-olds happily believed in the existence of the Candy Witch. And the beliefs were long-lasting: When tested a year later, most still believed that the Candy Witch was real.

Why is it so easy for children to believe in characters like the Candy Witch? It turns out that magical thinking—or believing that impossible things can happen in real life—is just part of what characterizes children at this age. For example, if you ask 4- and 5-year-olds about possible and impossible transformations—for example, whether a small mouse could become a big mouse (possible), or whether a small mouse could become a fish (impossible)—children as young as 4 know that the impossible transformations are indeed impossible. But all bets are off when there’s magic involved: Children of the same age make no distinction between the possible and impossible transformations if you ask them whether a magician could turn a mouse into a fish.

Much of the time children rely on what other people tell them to distinguish fact from fiction—what researchers call testimony. They also rely on evidence from the world around them. In the case of the Candy Witch, all testimony (e.g., what parents say) and evidence (e.g., a toy appearing in place of a bag of Halloween candy) pointed to her existence. In fact, on a day-to-day basis, children are inundated with books, movies, and even claims from parents that make many fictional characters seem real.

In the world of Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy, and the Candy Witch, how do children learn to distinguish between fantasy and reality? It actually happens quite naturally around age 7 or 8. At this point, children will obtain both testimony and evidence from their friends at school or from learning about the physics of what’s possible and impossible and begin to more easily distinguish between what’s real and what’s imaginary. They’ll question old evidence, seek out new evidence, and most will eventually find out on their own that some of their favorite fictional characters aren’t real after all. These revelations aren’t necessarily bad: Children tend to figure out the truth about Santa Claus, for example, on their own, and their reactions are generally positive.

In the end, children are not all that different from adults. They just have less experience and need time to develop a mature understanding of how the world works. And while some of us shed our magical beliefs in mid-childhood, others hold on to a few, especially around certain holidays: Up to 42 percent of adults still believe in ghosts and goblins.