Halloween has generally been considered a dark holiday, what with it being built on the idea of fright, but it's not, really. At best, it's an artful cosplay contest. At worst, it's ill-conceived political messages. It's the day we all become cartoons. It's not frightful, it's fun! But what if I told you that, on a psychological level, Halloween is in fact messing with kids' heads and turning them into junior psychos hellbent on sewing chaos and disorder in their own cute display of Devil's Night mayhem?
Well, it's not making them murder anyone, but there are a lot of little hallmarks of Halloween which studies have shown turn children into real bite-sized pieces of shit. It all begins with one surprising fundamental truth about how children perceive the holiday ...
We let them dress like heroes and monsters. We buy 12-pound bags of Snickers and gleefully empty it into their chubby little hands in celebration of a night which we have designated as being for them. A night that the rest of us wish we could go back in time to take part in all over again to reap those sweet, sweet candy rewards. Adulthood begins as soon as you can beat up the person giving you your Halloween candy.
As much as adults try to make Halloween about ourselves, we'll never escape that Halloween was and will always be more fun for kids -- which is why we dress each other up like nightmarish freak monsters and display human guts and dismemberment all over the place. Children love dismemberment, right? Well, that and unconditional care, but mostly dismemberment.
What Actually Happens:
Who would've thought that when you open up the idea of death to a small child for their entertainment, they end up having a mini existential panic?
Most kids up to the age of about six or seven haven't attended many funerals, met people with terminal illnesses, or seen A Nightmare On Elm Street. So Halloween is usually their first brush with the concept of death. They're still getting used to being alive, and one day a year we tell them that we all expire into an unknowable aftermath once our fleshy bodies degrade and our mortal lives cease. But hey, that's a neat Spider-Man outfit!
According to this Halloween study, it's difficult for younger children to distinguish between real death and the Halloween iconography of it, like skeletons and rubber knives sticking out of people's heads. For them, there is no real and fake. In their heads, that bloody rubber foot sticking out of your trunk is probably a real guy who needs help. Kids don't quite understand irony yet, so the concept of laughing in the face of our bleak and inevitable doom is fucking stupid. "This shit ain't funny. WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE, MAN!" is what little kids would be saying every Halloween if they knew how to verbalize their internal panic as well as I do every night before bed.
The quiet dread and confusion they feel when a zombie walks by with a Frankenstein on their arm is in no way soothed by the fact that ...
We think a kid can look at the displays of mutilation and horror walking all around them and brush it off as fake. Why? Because we, the wise and trustworthy adults who watched half of Saw IV on a plane and therefore know the difference between real and pretend horror, tell them it is. We figure their imaginations are so active that they "get it," as if they have so much life experience with the psychotic freak show the world turns into on Halloween that by the time they're five, they're jaded and over it. Nothing can fool them anymore, even though they think its equally real that there exists a magical man with a sack of gifts, a woman who leaves behind money in exchange for teeth, and a rabbit who shits plastic eggs filled with chocolate and dollars bills.
What Actually Happens:
If you stepped out of a room and stepped back in wearing a cheap Dracula costume, there's a decent chance a kid won't think there's a very efficient vampire on the other side of that door siring anyone who walks in. That kid has read the Twilight books. They know there's a vampiric gestation period of at least a few days before the transformation is complete. They're not stupid.
Kids are more willing to believe the unbelievable when they're provided with some kind of "evidence" from an authority figure, like their parents. They're not so smart yet, so the burden of proof is pathetically low. In one study from the University of Texas, the researchers made up a Halloween character called the Candy Witch, a mythical woman who will swap a child's Halloween candy for a toy in their sleep. She's like the Tooth Fairy if she was waging a holy war against teeth. The Antifairy, if you will.
First the seed was planted: Kids "overheard" their parents talking about the impending arrival of the Candy Witch. Then the undeniable proof was provided: Candy they left out was gone in the morning and replaced by a toy. After that, 66 percent of kids in the study claimed the Candy Witch was real. Kids who were provided with no evidence were likely to believe the Candy Witch was nothing but ridiculous bullshit. So imagine that a kid hears about the idea of death, and then they see it everywhere when they go out trick-or-treating. Suddenly Halloween seems like solid way to have them go through a terrible trip without taking acid.
There is a way they can fight off these fears, and it's already built into the holiday ...
We think of Halloween as a night when we unleash kids the way we do dogs at a park -- just let them go and hope they don't hump anything or escape through a tear in the fence. This is their time to indulge in a little untethered freedom. We see their costumes as a way for them to express themselves and unleash their inner pirate, Disney princess, or Batman every year, especially if that one costume is all their parents can afford and they have no choice but to be that one thing until they're 14.
Between the costumes, demanding candy, and being able to roam with a little more freedom than usual, on Halloween night, parents offer kids the illusion of independence and power. But they know that kids realize they still have boundaries.
What Actually Happens:
Parents think they're ceding some of their power over their children for a single night. Kids interpret it as having seized all of the power. When given a small taste of Halloween freedom, children become the monsters they're dressed as. They think the power dynamic in the parent-child relationship has been upended. They are revolutionaries who've destroyed the old oppressive parental paradigm, and they're about to topple statues of their tyrannical overlords, the hiders of candy, the dictators of bedtime.
Birthdays and Christmas still have some kind of limits on what a kid can demand from an adult. That changes on Halloween. Kids run screaming up to the homes of adults and bang on their doors demanding candy. They don't want that bite-sized shit, either. They want full-sized Kit Kats and Milky Ways. Blow your apples out of your ass. To hell with your pennies. It's an adorable Purge Night, motherfucker. Skittles or die! Carpe Dulcis! Seize the sweets!
The truly scary thing is, it's not just the freedom that turns kids into little sociopaths on Halloween ...
It's just innocent costume play. For a few hours one night a year, kids don't have to use their imaginations to pretend to be their favorite characters. They can don a costume and be Kylo Ren or Wonder Woman. Finally, their wildest fantasies are made real! On this night, under the cover of a mask, they can finally feel free to let loose and be who they really want to be, and maybe who they really are. And this is awesome for parents, because doing something exciting and wholesome like trick-or-treating keeps them out of trouble. Right? Right?
What Actually Happens:
Costumed children are basically criminals in training. The anonymity of a costume frees up their inhibitions enough for them to steal as much candy as they want. That doesn't sound so bad at first -- it's just candy, after all, and on a day when a little greed is permitted -- until you consider that the study also discovered that the kids feel the same about stealing money.
It's all about context. They may be a straight-A student with exemplary conduct and good grades to boot, but leave them in a room with a bowl full of candy and another full of coins with no adult supervision, and most kids will break out of that house at full speed, leaving a trail of nickels and candy corn in their wake. What's even more messed up is that they'll steal the money even after being told it was going to a charitable cause. Costumes turn kids into Charles Dickens villains.
Here's what one of the researchers said about watching a group of little costumed savages pilfer their candy supplies: "In fact we had some groups that came and they simply turned the bowl over, divided all the candies up, put it in their bags and left. They robbed us blind." It doesn't matter what they actually dress up as; Halloween is one big Lord Of The Flies cosplay.
Traveling in packs, as trick-or-treaters do, only makes the possibility of theft more likely, especially after a group watched its designated "leader" steal first. Once the floodgates showed the smallest weakness, they all fell and the kids gave in to their worst instincts. If you're a good parent, you'd be wise to get your kids started early on their rehabilitation speeches for their future parole hearings. If you're afraid that Halloween might be leading your kids down a dark path in life, there is one unusual but proven way to set them straight ...
Most parents like to think they've instilled enough of their ethical values into their children that when confronted with the choice between right and wrong, their spawn won't choose the path of despicable scumbags who steal from charities and hog all the Twix. Parents hope that when confronted with such pivotal choices that can easily spiral into dangerous futures, kids won't want to let their them down. Look at them! They dressed as Captain America instead of the Red Skull. They'll be a future philanthropist, and probably even a president ... of something.
What Actually Happens:
Kids don't give a costumed fuck about any of that when candy is involved. All sense of decency shuts down and the concepts of good and bad are obliterated. It's almost hopeless to assume a kid won't be a thieving prick in that situation ... unless there's a mirror in the room.
Usually around age nine, kids finally gain the ability to recognize their own bad behavior. Seeing themselves being the bag guys they've always heard about as they take candy from a bowl with a mirror behind it is enough to deter them from walking away with the entire bowl. Any younger, and they're still little sociopaths who will tell you that they didn't steal the Three Musketeers through their chocolate-stained lips.
But after staring at themselves in contemplation and saying, "You don't even know who you are anymore," then screaming and punching their reflection with a fistful of melting Hershey's Kisses, aluminum wrappers and little paper flags popping out between their fingers, they make the right choice. The horror of Halloween may have poisoned their minds and made them do things that they normally wouldn't, but goodness was in them all along. It was looking at them in the mirror the whole time. The trick was Halloween, but the treat was in their hearts. Or maybe it wasn't. I don't know. Let's go eat a Butterfinger or something.
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