Jacqueline Woolley is a professor and chair of the Department of Psychology who studies children’s understanding of reality at The University of Texas at Austin. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
(CNN)You might have noticed that Halloween decorations have changed since you were a little kid.
Things have taken a dark turn, and alongside the jack o’ lanterns, bedsheet ghosts and startling ghouls, it’s not so unusual now to find, even in the placid suburbs, grisly decorations featuring too-real-looking humans meeting a violent end: hooks in their skulls, knives in their bodies, or even depictions of human victims of hangings. Jacqueline WoolleyWhat’s wrong with this, you might ask, if the goal of Halloween is to scare and be scared? The answer is that this crosses the line from the fantastical realm into reality. And that’s not what Halloween is all about. I’m a developmental psychologist who studies how children distinguish fantasy from reality. My take on Halloween is that it’s a playground in which children can contemplate and navigate the distinction between life and death, and between fantasy and reality. Think about the costumed creatures that populate the streets on this holiday — ghosts, skeletons, vampires and zombies (we’ll leave out the pop culture figures for the purposes of this discussion: your “Elsa”, from Frozen, your Spider-Man…). These beings toe the line between the living and the dead, with one foot in the real and one in the imaginary world. Read MoreAll of them have enough attributes of real humans to make them relatable — they all have heads and bodies, they move, they look around. At the same time, they differ from us in just a few keys ways — ghosts, for example, fly instead of walk, vampires live forever. This combination of attributes, according to scientists, makes these beings especially salient and memorable. Must be the season of the witchDeath is a scary subject for many people, but one with which we all, arguably, need to become more comfortable. Insert death into a fantasy world and it loses some of its allure and becomes more accessible.In addition to dressing our children as these creatures on Halloween, we decorate our houses with them. Ghosts flutter from trees and skeletons dangle from railings. All of this, the costumes and the decorations, creates a world in which children can experience the blurry area between life and death and the emotions that might accompany this netherworld — perhaps fear, perhaps disgust– all while mostly feeling perfectly and comfortingly safe. They feel safe and are safe because it’s all experienced in a fantasy world. That’s the key to a successful Halloween experience. Step back for a moment and consider one of the most natural and pervasive activities in which young children engage: pretend play. Many have argued that the purpose of pretense is to provide children with experience dealing with real-world grownup issues, such as cooking food and driving cars. But there’s a reason we don’t give young children real, sharp knives with which to practice slicing onions, or real cars to drive around. Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes Cindy Crawford dressed as Marilyn Monroe for an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Halloween 1996. Hide Caption 1 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes Beyoncé dressed as fastest woman in the world, Florence Griffith Joyner, for Halloween last year.Hide Caption 2 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes She also styled herself as Lisa Bonet, with twins Rumi and Sir dressed as her then-infant daughter, Zoë Kravitz.Hide Caption 3 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes Heidi Klum costumed five models, complete with facial prosthetics, to act as her clones for her 2016 Halloween party.Hide Caption 4 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes Marc Jacobs and husband Charly Defrancesco dressed as bodybuilders for Bette Midler’s Annual Hulaween Bash in 2016.Hide Caption 5 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes Lupita Nyong’o paid tribute to Dionne from Clueless for Heidi Klum’s 2018 Halloween party.Hide Caption 6 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes Cardi B wore a Cruella de Vil ensemble for Halloween in 2017.Hide Caption 7 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes At the 2017 Casamigos Halloween Party, Kim Kardashian and Jonathan Cheban dressed as Cher and Sonny. Hide Caption 8 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes In 2016, Katy Perry employed the use of facial prosthetics to dress as Hillary Clinton.Hide Caption 9 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes Three years earlier, Perry went down and entirely different route — when she dressed as a Hot Cheeto.Hide Caption 10 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes Last year, Zoë Kravitz dressed as a sleepy vampire (“night time is morning time for vamps guys,” she explained on Instagram.)Hide Caption 11 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes Rihanna and friends chose a group costume in 2014, dressing as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.Hide Caption 12 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes For Heidi Klum’s 2015 Halloween party, Gigi Hadid dressed as Sandy from Grease.Hide Caption 13 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes Bette Midler attended her 2017 Hulaween Benefit for the New York Restoration Project dressed as Marie Antoinette.Hide Caption 14 of 15 Photos: The best celebrity Halloween costumes Last year, Harry Styles pulled off an Elton John tribute at the Casamigos Halloween Party.Hide Caption 15 of 15The point is for them to encounter the challenges of real life and its attendant emotions in a safe space, one in which there are few real-world consequences. Halloween does this. It works for adults, too.Think about the increasingly popular (and increasingly scary!) haunted houses for grown-ups. The primary goal here is the same — to be scared, but safe. Beings leap out at you unexpectedly, you’re hit in the face with slime, creatures scream at you, you lose your way in the dark. But, critically, no one ever really gets hurt, and you know this when you decide to go inside. So, how to know when your Halloween decorations have crossed the line from scary-safe into something closer to terrorizing? Think about whether you’re depicting something that both could really happen and might generate a negative emotion. These kinds of images will certainly give children the opportunity to experience fear but not in a way that makes them feel safe, and, importantly, not in a way that will increase their comfort with the negative emotions they generate.Follow CNN Opinion
Tragically, too many real people have been wrongly hanged in the history of this country, and hanging has, unfortunately, become a leading and increasingly common method of suicide in this country. In contrast, the creepy hand reaching up from the grave on my front lawn isn’t something that could really happen, and children know this. It’s scary (and fun) to entertain the thought that the dead person under there might come out, but deep down we know that it’s not going to grab us. That is the essence of Halloween.