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Halloween Quotes: What They Say About Our Fears

How does the holiday help us gain control over our deepest anxieties?

clary2014, artist/Pixabay free image
Source: clary2014, artist/Pixabay free image

To the extent that Halloween revolves around an emotion, there's no question that this emotion is fear. After all, the most compelling creatures of the day (or night!) are monsters. And these bloodcurdling ogres represent either the freakishly dead--such as mummies, skeletons, and ghosts, or the ghoulishly undead--like zombies and vampires--who can scare us not only by their spine-chilling appearance (fangs, anyone?), but through their legendary reputation of dining ferociously on the flesh and blood of the living.

Additionally, since this is essentially a holiday for children, is it any wonder that witches (whose hideous faces could sink a thousand ships) regard innocents not just as prey but as, well, "delicacies." It's as though, whether young or old, Halloween offers us a unique opportunity to apply our sense of humor to our most primal anxieties. This strangely ironic holiday--somehow at once scary, creepy, and comical--enables us to better distance ourselves from our darkest fears.

And it accomplishes this feat by actually taking our apprehensions to the next level: the supernatural. Its fear-inspiring, yet fanciful, stimuli--so grotesquely over the top--makes the yearly event seem (oxymoronically) spookily ludicrous . . . or ludicrously spooky. Its gruesome masks, forms, and figures are finally objects much more of merriment than consternation. So, on this special day--a day of both candies and cannibals--we're prompted to laugh at what just might constitute our most hidden fears, or nightmares.

In preparation for this piece, I've reviewed scores of quotations linked with Halloween. Not surprisingly, I noted that many of them dealt specifically with the human capacity for fright, terror, and awe. As both a theorist and therapist, I thought it would be interesting to offer some distinctly psychological interpretations for the various quotes alluding to our skittish susceptibilities. As you read through the sayings and statements below, consider my bracketed annotations as an invitation. Both to stimulate your own thinking, and also to possibly broaden your understanding of the emotion so clearly pivotal to this most "ghastly" of holidays.

Clothes make a statement. Costumes tell a story. ~ Mason Cooley [. . . and as I've suggested, the "stories" behind Halloween "costumes" are mostly anxiety-based. Moreover, the calculatedly scary outfits that we don may enable us to gain control over such fears through vicariously becoming precisely that which most frightens us. Possibly, the scarier the costume, the more empowered we may feel "dressed" in it .]

There is nothing that gives more assurance than a mask. ~ Colette [Elaborating on what I've just said above, as fear can hide behind a mask, so can a mask fortify us against fear. Through adopting a false facade and taking on a scary appearance, we can-- for the moment, at least--transcend our not-very-confident, or "assured," self.]

If a man harbors any sort of fear, it makes him landlord to a ghost. ~ Lloyd Douglas [It is our fears that create ghosts. If we're going to, er-, "host ghosts," all that's needed is for us to succumb to our fears.]

You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you. ~ Eric Hoffer [Really profound thought, I think: We naturally project what we fear onto others. If these others are clever enough to make the linkage that Hoffer does, what we're really doing through our frightening behavior is giving them the best possible ammunition to use against us.]

Where there is no imagination there is no horror. ~ Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr. [Yes! it's our imagination that gives rise to the phantoms that frighten us. Absent this--and the anxiety-inducing programs from deep within us--our emotional equilibrium would be unassailable.]

A house is never still in darkness to those who listen intently; there is a whispering in distant chambers, an unearthly hand presses the snib of the window, the latch rises. Ghosts were created when the first man awoke in the night. ~ J.M. Barrie [Here what's so poignantly described is that it's our uncertainty--not being able to make out the source of what is heard, or felt--that underlies our fears. In our compulsion to understand what our eyesight is unable to, our imagination can run wild--and engender the ghosts that make our blood run cold.]

On Halloween, witches come true;
Wild ghosts escape from dreams.
Each monster dances in the park.... ~ Nicholas Gordon [This characterization is perhaps more capricious than anything else. Still, if only symbolically, the author intimates that the essence of the holiday is that it allows our subterranean fears to come to the surface. And all our imaginings--whether of witches (cf "wishes"!), ghosts, or monsters--are given the space to emerge from cracks within our consciousness.]

On Hallowe'en the thing you must do is pretend that nothing can frighten you. And if somethin' scares you and you want to run, just let on like it's Hallowe'en fun. ~ Anon [Showing fear makes us look weak, gutless, cowardly. So--at least according to this light-hearted perspective--we really should fake courage to protect ourselves from any embarrassment. Personally, though, I think it's too bad that typically we feel obliged to hide our vulnerabilities--rather than freely admit them to others and not be overly concerned whether they'll react with sympathy and support. Remember, no one has the power to humiliate or shame you without your consent.]

Halloween wraps fear in innocence,
As though it were a slightly sour sweet.
Let terror, then, be turned into a treat... ~ Nicholas Gordon [Interesting take on the holiday as capable of neutralizing fear through transmuting it into something not simply innocent but "appetizing" as well (!).]

One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.
~Emily Dickinson [Ah! the poet as psychologist. And, of course, Dickinson is right. The "house" of the brain is the location from which our greatest horrors emanate.]

I don't know that there are real ghosts and goblins, but there are always more trick-or-treaters than neighborhood kids. ~ Robert Brault [Frankly, I find this quote hilarious: i.e., if there are that many kids out begging--more than could possibly come from the immediate neighborhood--could some of these monsters possibly be the real thing?! But there's another level here, too (though probably unintended by the author). And that is, when we're prone to fear, then--no matter how much we may realize we're safe--there's almost always a reason for us to harbor some doubt as to whether we're really safe (!).]

Hobgoblins know the proper way to dance:
Arms akimbo, loopy legs askew,
Leaping into darkness with delight,
Lusting for the ecstasy of fright,
Open to the charm of horrors new....~ Nicholas Gordon [To me at least, the author is celebrating the creatures of the night as adventurously, audaciously free because, so fearsome themselves, they need fear nothing outside them. As a result, they can simply "cut loose." Their movements are totally liberated, unrestrained--"ecstatic." The indirect suggestion here is that if we were not so anxious and held- back, we'd be more open to the "charms" and "delights" available only through uninhibitedly expressing our primordial vitality.]

Be wary then; best safety lies in fear. ~ Shakespeare [Taking us in a rather different direction, the Bard wisely reminds us that if there's an actual threat of danger, it's the emotion of fear that advises caution and keeps us vigilant. Not to feel fear in such situations is hazardous, for then we'd gratuitously let our guard down.]

Darkness belongs to the dead, the ungodly and the demons that lurk in our minds. ~Anon [Again, the suggestion that it's the darkness inside us that we need most to be afraid of.]

Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody. ~ Mark Twain [Ditto, except that this quote also hints that we should remain aware that what another reveals to us may not represent the sum total of what "lurks" inside them.]

Fear has many eyes and can see things underground. ~ Miguel de Cervantes [Yes! what we can vividly imagine, we can't help but ascribe a certain reality to. Remember that the word "imagination" comes from the word "image." Unfortunately, what we can conjure up visually, we're apt to believe (which is a curious twist on "seeing is believing."]

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. ~ Bertrand Russell [This statement is considerably more complicated than meets the eye. Here's my interpretation: When we can't comprehend something, we may get scared by it. And in our need to attribute some meaning to that which frightens us, we literally make things up. Because we're not able to appreciate its essence, our fabrication lacks any basis in reason. So, by definition, it's superstition. By the same token, if something feels threatening to us, we feel obliged to protect ourselves from it, counteract it, even wage war against it. . . . And, ultimately, to punish it. And this is a key source of human cruelty.]

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. ~ H. P. Lovecraft [Indirectly, this quote relates to the one above, and is possibly the primary theme in all the quotations I've reviewed. And--at this point--you hardly need any further explication!]

© 2011‭ ‬Leon F.‭ ‬Seltzer,‭ ‬Ph.D.‭ ‬All Rights Reserved

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