Fascinated by fear
Halloween: Ecstasy, escapism and enchantment
Despite an easily-spooked economy, Americans aren’t afraid to open up their wallets and spend big on Halloween. A recent National Retail Federation survey shows a record 170 million Americans plan to spend $8 billion on decorations, dining and dressing up. A big chunk of that is adults planning to purchase creepy costumes for a holiday that used to be about children’s amusement.
“We love a night of fun or a big costume party, but there are deeper reasons we are fascinated with the macabre on Halloween,” Wake Forest English professor Eric Wilson, author of Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, said. “It’s a night when we are allowed to be different – in fact, encouraged to be someone else and not our regular selves.”
The scary economy may also play into our love of all things ghoulish. Wilson said when times are hard, the desire to escape intensifies. “What is Halloween but a night we can pretend to be someone else, setting aside our worries or regrets? But when we remove the mask the next day, reality shuffles back into our lives like a relentless zombie. That’s the true terror.”
But it’s not terror that drives us to dress up like undead vampires and shuffling zombies, it’s the perverse pleasure of celebrating death and destruction, Wilson maintained. “There is a true joy to Halloween – the ecstasy of transforming into another creature. But in a time of financial crisis, when many are forced to face their limitations and mortality in unpleasant ways, it makes sense that Americans would be enchanted by dressing up as dead things: zombies and vampires and such.”
Halloween gives us permission to do open what we usually do secretly: wear masks, Wilson said. “To get along in the world, we constantly pretend to be nicer or happier than we are, especially during a difficult economy when to get and keep jobs we are expected to put a good face on things.” He suggests Halloween dress up is a reflection of life’s hardest facts – we have to be phony to survive – and one of life’s delights – we are clever enough to survive.
With AMC’s popular cable series about zombies The Walking Dead capturing 10.9 million viewers for its mid-October season three premiere, up 50% from season two figures, and the final installment of the vampire-themed The Twilight Saga coming to theaters in mid-November, Americans seem more interested in the undead than ever. Wilson says we find kinship in monsters because they are possessed by an uncontrollable force – neither zombies in their quest for brains nor vampires in their quest for blood are able to stop or reason through their hunger.
“We can imagine the satisfaction of living without accountability, casting off humanity and turning into machines without morals,” Wilson said. “Zombies overcome death, vampires rule time, ghosts vanquish space and werewolves and other shape-shifters transcend a stable identity.”
Plus, he added, “They are simply scary and we like to be scared. It’s the ultimate thrill ride.”