For kids and adults alike, Halloween is one of the best holidays of the year. Who doesn’t love an excuse to dress up as Darth Vader and stuff their faces with candy? It might surprise you to learn, however, that there’s another group for whom Halloween is especially exciting: child psychologists.
Halloween has for decades been the focus of numerous studies into the psychological growth of children and adolescents. It’s a time of chaos and inversion when day-to-day customs are flipped on their head, and we celebrate the evil, the devilish and the depraved – which makes it a great time to examine exactly how developing minds when the ordinary rules of civilization are suspended.
So what have these Halloween-based studies taught us about the inner workings of the minds of children?
Death Is A Serious Business
Over the Halloweens of 1999, 2000 and 2001, Cindy Dell Clark observed American trick-or-treaters between the ages of six and seven. After interviewing the children and their parents, Clark found that while the adults dismissed the symbols of terror and death prevalent at Halloween as harmless and even humorous, kids took them much more seriously. Young children were genuinely terrified by certain experiences (such as haunted houses or ghastly lawn displays), with some experiencing nightmares; but on Halloween parents were lax in protecting them from frightening experiences, expressing the belief that their children would toughen against fear through exposure to it.
Part of the appeal of Halloween for adults, Clark suggests, lies in lampooning things that otherwise seem dreadful, such as death: “the sting of seeing a casket or cemetery [is] defused, perhaps cathartically, through the festive framing of ritual.” It’s a way of acknowledging death while also dismissing it. But the children hadn’t yet learned to separate Halloween symbols from the reality of death, and several confided that the tombstones or skeletons on display reminded them directly of lost loved ones or pets. One girl expressed genuine fear for her life after being startled in a haunted house. For the children in Clark’s study, Halloween is a holiday directly linked with death and grief.
Costumes Make You Powerful
For children, therefore, certain aspects of Halloween require immense courage. Crossing a lawn to get candy becomes an ordeal if you’re unaware the ghouls and vampires are fake. Particular rules of safety are suspended on Halloween: interacting with strangers, for example, is not only allowed but encouraged. Walking down the street at night is permitted. Trespassing is welcomed. Such acts of transgression, strictly punished throughout the rest of the year, demand bravery and assertion – which often comes in the form of a costume.
The trick-or-treaters in Clark’s study often wore empowering costumes (superheroes, fairies and witches), carried symbolic props and weapons (fake swords, pitchforks, magic wands) and rehearsed in-character skills (fire-breathing, fighting with weapons, casting spells) before Halloween. One boy noted that his mask protected him from the devil. On Halloween, a child’s costume is more than playing pretend: it’s a suit of armor, powerful protection against strangers and monsters.
Anonymity Encourages Rule-Breaking
The empowering boldness granted by costumed anonymity doesn’t always take positive form. A study from 1976 by Diener, Fraser, Beaman and Kelem found that children were more likely to steal candy or money during Halloween when they were allowed to remain anonymous. The effect was especially pronounced when the children were in groups, and when responsibility for the candy was assigned by an adult to one group member in particular. Anonymous groups with this condition of “altered responsibility” reported a stealing rate of 80%.
A later study by Diener and colleagues explored whether self-awareness could reduce rates of Halloween candy theft. A mirror, placed behind the candy bowl, was used to induce self-awareness in young trick-or-treaters. Self-awareness reduced transgression in children whose names and addresses were known to the experimenters but had no impact on the theft rates of anonymous participants.
The anonymity of a Halloween costume can help children to combat the terror of death, darkness and supernatural threats, but in this case, Diener notes, anonymity also reduced children’s fear of apprehension and punishment – and hence encouraged them to violate rules they might have otherwise respected.
The Treat Is The Trick
In Halloween-based studies, candy is frequently used to incentivize children. This is unsurprising: for many children, unfettered access to candy, an act usually restricted by parents, is the highlight of the holiday. This is reiterated by the young subjects of Clark’s study, one of whom notes, “[Halloween is] kids’ day, and kids like candy. Most of the time you don’t get candy.” To these kids, it’s the procurement of candy, rather than dressing up or making mischief, which symbolizes the spirit of Halloween.
Many adults lament the shift in focus Halloween’s undergone in the past century: there’s more treating, less tricking. Susan Honeyman notes that “trick or treat” is, effectively, a method of paying children off for their good behavior with cheap candy. How many children, when their peers are filling their mouths and pockets with treats, are going to choose trick?
Yet what many nostalgic adults don’t understand is that for children, the treat is the trick: on Halloween, alone of any day of the year, children are allowed to march up to adults and make demands. Children get candy; adults get nothing. For one night the world is inverted; children are given ultimate freedom and agency. It’s the ultimate prank.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.