Carolyn Kaufman Psy.D.

Psychology for Writers

Confronting Terror

Halloween gives us safe ways to conquer existential fears

Posted Oct 27, 2011

Your Time Will Come

Your time will come.

That kind of freaks me out, if I think about it. I mean, my time WILL come, and so will yours, when we'll just be bones, too. Yikes!

So why does that give so many people a delicious thrill? And why, for that matter, do people love scary movies and scary books?

I have a (psychological, of course) theory. I think Halloween (and scary movies, and horror novels) give us a way to confront our deepest existential fears about both death and our own darkness without actually putting ourselves in danger. (And as far as many people are concerned, the adrenaline rush of a sudden scare doesn't hurt, either.) After all, what better way to harness that which frightens us than to diminish it into something fun and entertaining? To take the symbols of the one thing which will finally defeat us all and make them manageable?

Some people seek out more extreme experiences, ones that may induce true terror, like the haunted house described in David Weiss's post, but again, the situation is temporally limited, and the individual always has a safe word to end the experience. Ultimately, the individual has control, and if he is able to tolerate the entire walk through the house, he can feel that he has vanquished his fears, maybe even fear itself.

I think the same principle is at work when people rubberneck at a bad accident. In some ways, death reminds us that we are alive, as yet undefeated by the Reaper. And interestingly, most of us function under a kind of defense mechanism that makes us feel more hopeful about life, more invulnerable than we really are.

Let's face it—you could die in a car accident the next time you get in a car. (If you're thinking No, I'm a good driver!, then go ahead and say hello to your defense mechanism.) But most of us are in denial about that, because if we weren't, how would we function?

In depressed people, that defense mechanism often breaks down. To most, the depressed person seems pessimistic and cynical, but research shows that depressed people are actually just seeing the world more realistically than the average person. And reality is a tough thing to face—most people who commit suicide have a mood disorder of some kind. It also doesn't help that depression is often not a time-limited experience—for many it seems to go on and on, leaving them living in an endless hell with no safe word or escape.

If you're a writer, you may find that having your heroes confront your fears is a worthwhile experience. Rather than pretending those fears aren't there (which can leave them haunting your dreams and nightmares), put them on the page and really wrestle with them. After all, exposure therapy—including imaginal exposure—has been shown to help people with anxiety and fears of all kinds.

And since it seems to be human nature to be fascinated with harrowing tales, you're likely to keep your readers riveted as well!

© 2011 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today 

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior.  More information is available on the book's website.