Is Halloween Too Scary for Kids?
We take Halloween deadly serious at my house. In our front yard, heaps of fresh dirt cover new graves, a bloody brain roasts on a hibachi, femurs litter the ground. Standing amid all this store-bought devastation, 9-year-old Ethan inserts a severed arm into his own sweater sleeve, then gravely offers to shake my hand.
Is it really healthy to allow kids to feel the chill of good old fashioned terror this season? Or am I setting up my son for sleepless nights and future therapy? On the web, discussions of this parental concern are as plentiful as leftover candy corn.
Psychologists note that children younger than ten may be most vulnerable to Halloween’s horrors as they often have a hard time distinguishing the real and the not real: A kindergartner may be truly terrified of the zombie lurching at her, even if beneath the undead trappings it’s only jolly Uncle Fred.
According to one web report, Penn State psychologist Cindy Dell Clark found that most parents underestimate just how terrifying the holiday can be for young kids. “Intriguingly, Halloween is a holiday when adults assist children in behaviors taboo and out of bounds,” Clark writes in the anthropological journal Ethos. We parents might wring our hands the other 364 days of the year about how to most tactfully discuss the passing of a beloved goldfish, but on Halloween the doors of the crypt are flung wide open. “It is striking that on Halloween, death-related themes are intended as entertainment for the very children whom adults routinely protect,” concludes Clark.
The pendulum, to use an Edgar Allen Poe trope, may be swinging the other way. Last Halloween, the New York Times reported a growing number of schools are banning offensive–or just plain frightening–get-ups: “In a school district in Illinois, students are being encouraged to dress up as historical characters or delicious food items rather than vampires or zombies,” the author notes, while a California school forbids “horror characters” and costumes that are “scary.” Thumbs up for Dorothy and Toto, I guess, thumbs down for flying monkeys. (Here’s a link to one therapist’s tips for further defanging the holiday.)
Certainly some parental pushback may be in order—on the haunted streets of my own childhood, I might encounter a toilet-paper mummy or a bed-sheet ghost, Marimekko tag still showing. Now, exciting breakthroughs in Halloween technology mean that blood flows, geyser-like from foreheads; deathlike masks (size child X-small) feature rotting flesh dangling over empty eye sockets; realistic machine guns are toted in the same small hands as plastic pumpkins.
Other experts argue that being scared in the safe ways Halloween allows is actually good for (older) kids. It lets them practice being brave, a rare opportunity in the modern child-proof world. “When children witness the scary things in life, they can examine these emotions and by doing so gain some power over them,” argues horror writer Reece Shearsmith. “Horror stories offer a playground in which children, and adults, can play at fear. There is nothing wrong with being scared. It’s a survival response.”
So don’t make your preschooler tour that Jason-themed Haunted House because you think it might be “fun.” But, for older kids, I hope there is still room for that frisson of fear I remember so deliciously. In those precious hours pumpkins glowed on stoops, our familiar neighborhood became strange and, yes, haunted. The dark streets, the crackle of dry leaves under my curled witch shoes, a sidewalk suddenly and mysteriously empty—then an unearthly sound just behind me.
Halloween should remain a treat for kids’ imagination, or maybe a trick—Wait… did something just move behind that tree?
Photo of my handsome son, Ethan. Halloween 2009.
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