Why We Shouldn’t Sanitize Halloween

One mindful parent’s attempt to balance the lure of gore and guts with her children’s need to experiment safely with fear.

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We went to Wal-Mart for curtains and a rug on an ordinary autumn afternoon. On our way to the checkout, there was no bypassing the enormous Halloween display: an animatronic skeleton with a fiendish glare sat next to a wall of masks including (but not limited to) a werewolf with teeth like serrated blades and a zombie that lacked half the flesh on it’s ghoulish green face.

“Mommy! Can we get some scary Halloween stuff for the house?” My seven-year-old daughter, Opal, treated the exhibition of terror and faux-death as if it were as inviting as a row of jolly elves at Christmas time. It put her in the spirit.

The next ten minutes consisted of talking Opal down from a sign that said “beware” in what looked like the dripping blood of someone who was actively dying, to something less disturbing, like, say, a spider made of oversized pipe-cleaners. She begged for a devilish skeleton door-knocker and I talked her down to a quaint little pumpkin for the front window. She was underwhelmed.

The rack of kids’ costumes was directly across the aisle from an array of tombstones, weaponry and plastic dismembered body parts. Opal settled happily upon a “Native American Princess” outfit, but not without asking what the tombstones were.

There will always be times when Opal’s want-to-be-older brain may tell her she is ready for things that her deeper psyche is not quite ready for—that is an inevitable part of growing up.

I explained how dead bodies are buried in the ground and how families put a headstone on top with the deceased person’s name on it so they will have a place to come, reminisce and bring flowers. The way we buried her pet fish and put a special rock on top to remind us where he was.

By this point, my eight-month-old baby had pulled down a pet-sized sombrero and was gnawing on it like a dog on a bone. This was indeed not the line of conversation I was prepared for at this particular moment.

Opal nodded, as if to say, “oh, makes sense,” and turned to investigate a shelf of afro wigs. On our way home, she said, “Mom, I want to make the house really scary this year for Halloween. Can we please?”

To be clear, I am an autumn fanatic. In fact, Jesse and I got married just three days before Halloween in a huge, woodsy room in the mountains with a billowing fire in the fireplace and cornucopias on every table. I love the gradual changing of the leaves, and the cooler mornings, evenings and temperaments. I love the well-bracketed schedule of school days and the weekend rituals of hayrides and pumpkin-picking. I love celebrating my daughter’s late-October birthday.

And, yes, I love Halloween. I love wearing wigs and I love seeing, for example, a neighborhood dad dressed up as a Mexican wrestler—in a mask and gold tight-pants—when I am used to seeing him only in jeans and a fleece. It’s hard to look at him in the same way after that, which, truth-be-told, I enjoy. The visual satisfaction of adults going all-out on Halloween sustains me for the rest of the year when everyone is going about their day-to-days.

But all the blood and guts and morbidity I could do without. And turning a blind-eye is not an option with an inquisitive child in tow.

Scaring the bejeebers out of young kids isn’t necessarily a way to make kids’ fears of death and other things frightening feel safer.

I agreed that, sure, we could decorate the house for Halloween, complete with spider webs and pumpkins and the endearing, foot-tall, married skeleton couple we’ve been displaying for years. But no body parts, murder or terror.
“Awwww, Mom! Pleeease!”

When we got home, we found a package of unopened Halloween decorations in the garage—presumably sent by an aunt who buys things on clearance after the holiday and then mails them to us. Inside was a cardboard graveyard scene that was intended for a dinner-party. Tombstone place cards and bat napkin holders. To be fair, they were pretty cute. And, as far as I could tell, pretty benign. No blood, guts or dangling flesh bits. So, we got out the scotch tape and went for it. Within the half-hour, Opal’s bedroom was a-flourish with cardboard tombstone paraphernalia.

Everyone satisfied.

That night, she was up for most of the night with nightmares about dead people crawling out from behind the tombstones.

For the greater part of the year, we censor. When in Opal’s company, I shut off the BBC radio news in my car when they report on the war in Syria. Jesse is quick to change the channel from COPS when Opal enters the room. And yet, for this one short period out of every year, over-the-top death and terror is looming from every nook and cranny—even the aisles of the corner drug store when we are stopping to buy Q-tips. It’s unavoidable.

It’s just Halloween, right? It’s just how we do it, how many cultures do it, and will continue to do it year after year. But lately, I have started to wonder if there is a mindful way of navigating the visual incongruities of the Halloween season.
When we walk with the kids to school and pass the skeleton that dangles from a noose on the corner-fence, we say, with wide, puzzling, adult-smiles, “Ooh, so scary!” then follow up with “It’s just pretend” like nothing happened. It’s just now occurring to me that all this may be utterly confusing to our youngsters.

Luckily, we live in a tiny corner of the world where the Halloween costumes fall more into the category of Minions and Fairies rather than the blood-and-guts variety. All the kids on our block trick-or-treat together in a disorganized mob. So, we haven’t yet had to explain when a sinister vampire shows up at our door, saying trick-or-treat in his most demonic baritone.

But it’s still out there. Opal’s seeing it and she can’t un-see it. We can’t exactly erase it from her environment, nor would we want to. This is part of our culture. Not to mention the fact that life has a dark side—namely, the inevitability of death—and Halloween could be an opportunity for kids to come face-to-face with the sort of emotions they may feel sheltered from during the rest of the year. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But, when they are young, how can we allow them to flirt with this experience while still feeling buffered in the safety of reality?

Selecting where to let Opal choose what she is ready for and where to intervene is simply part of parenting, and it is certainly not a perfect science.

Cindy Dell Clark, associate professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State, said parents need to realize that scaring the bejeebers out of young kids isn’t necessarily a way to make kids’ fears of death and other things frightening feel safer.
Perhaps, as she is saying, there is a more sensitive way to go about it without feeling the need to sterilize the entire season.

Developmentally, children are not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality until the age of six or seven. And even then—and well into adulthood—particular scenes and images can trigger anxieties, depending on the person’s individual experiences. The life-like Pet Cemetery scene in the neighbor’s yard may especially disturb a child who just lost a pet while another child who just experienced his grandma’s funeral may be haunted to the core by the coffin and splattering of tombstones in the yard of the local rec center.

Yet, these contained scary experiences, especially when based in larger, community-based traditions, have the potential to help children deal with fears they’re bound to have at some point. In the past, discussing with Opal what to expect ahead of time has helped defuse her dreads, and negate the ones that have not yet come up. This is no different—right now our dinner chats cover everything from the history of Halloween to the scariest costumes we have ever seen!

Having said all that, the fact is, as the parent, it is still up to me to decide if an experience is simply too intense and inappropriate for my specific youngster. Translation: no fresh-kill, blood dripping down the front window. And yet, there will always be times when Opal’s want-to-be-older brain may tell her she is ready for things that her deeper psyche is not quite ready for—that is an inevitable part of growing up. Selecting where to let Opal choose what she is ready for and where to intervene is simply part of parenting, and it is certainly not a perfect science.

When I was five, I remember watching the Michael Jackson video, Thriller, with a room full of neighbor kids who were all much older. One of them even let me sit on her lap and said, “I’ll keep you safe.” I wound up having nightmares for weeks and I still have a visceral memory of the horror I felt as that lengthy video labored on. But I think it’s fair to say that I preferred that sort of terror to the embarrassment-terror that would have followed had my mom intervened on this rare occasion where I was fully included in the big-kid action.

As for Opal, she does not want to take the tombstones out of her room; she utterly refuses, in spite of the nightmares. She is experimenting in her own way with kid fears. For now, we are allowing her to her hang out in that vulnerable place. She knows our safe, warm bed is right across the hall.

Having said that, I am quite sure there is much more to the nightmares than simply cardboard tombstones: a new school year, a new gymnastics class, fears and expectations, changes galore. Perhaps the tombstones give those emotions a name and an outlet?

Maybe this is why Halloween works, contrary to all of my logical, protective parent-thinking. As Opal dabbles with these faux-terrors during the month of October—while on the way to school, while shopping with her sister and I, while watching moderately scary movies, while on the night of trick-or-treat—she’ll be surrounded by her all-powerful shield of friends and family. And she’ll have a safe, warm bed to climb into at the end of every single one of those days.