Dewitched: Rutgers Researcher Unmasks Social Dynamics of Halloween Rituals

Dewitched: Rutgers Researcher Unmasks Social Dynamics of Halloween Rituals

Rutgers University-Camden professor says although Halloween is typically regarded as a kids’ holiday, there is something in it for adults too

Halloween is a classic role-inversion ritual, where the lowly becomes high. For one night, children put on the power of grownups, according to Dell.

'While we are exposing kids to something that is supposed to make them tougher, we are using the contrast of children to make the thing seem more innocent by association.'
- Cindy Dell Clark

For 364 days a year, parents raise their children as if it’s a G-rated world doing their best to shield them from potentially fear-inducing situations. Then Halloween arrives and, as if waving a magic wand, parents walk a step behind as their kids approach strangers’ doors – often traversing scenes of horror and death – to demand candy, normally a controlled substance, by the handfuls.

But why “unmask” a different reality at the end of October?

“Although Halloween is typically regarded as a kids’ holiday, there is something in it for adults too,” explains Cindy Dell Clark, a visiting associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers University-Camden. “When people fear something, the denial of that fear – that energy – can be released indirectly during ritual. Adults enjoy being scared, and think that kids should too, because it’s all in a mock way, in the context of pretense.”

According to Clark, who has studied the social dynamics of Halloween and other American holidays for more than a decade, Halloween is a classic role-inversion ritual, where the lowly becomes high. For one night, children put on the power of grownups, often choosing costumes that mimic adult power. Boys will mimic physical power, such as superheroes, that they associate with being bigger or stronger. Girls, who have taken note how society bestows power to women deemed pretty, typically prefer to dress as pretty characters, such as Disney princesses.

“Even if they are a witch, they often prefer to be a pretty witch, rather than an ugly one,” says Clark.

This role reversal explains why parents will let their children do things that they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to do, she says.

But there is more to the web to be weaved.

Clark's research shows that there is also a “grave” difference in the ways that adults and kids perceive Halloween iconography. As she discovered, 6- and 7-year olds usually take these icons quite literally. She recalls that when interviewing children during the week after Halloween, she showed them images of witches, ghosts, and other icons that typically adorned homes on Halloween. The children were so scared of these images that they turned the pictures over or hid them from view.

“For kids, an image of a gravestone or cemetery can conjure thoughts of actual death,” she says. “They relate these images to a world where these things represent real harm.” However, children enjoy taking risks, she adds, so long as it’s within a safe emotional range. 

“Candy then becomes the symbolic spoils of their victory in exerting their own power on a dark night,” says Clark.

Meanwhile, adults relish the sinister side of Halloween, as evidenced in through-the-roof sales of adult costume and decorations, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher. Parents, especially fathers, believe that their children should enjoy Halloween “for the fun of it” and relate to icons in a non-literal sense as they do.

When adults mock death at Halloween, Clark adds, they are actually making it more approachable for themselves, taking a subject that is normally taboo to contemplate or discuss and, for one day, considering it at an arm’s length. By making children an inherent part of Halloween celebrations, children become associated with these icons, which helps adults “to laugh it off.”

“While we are exposing kids to something that is supposed to make them tougher, we are using the contrast of children to make the thing seem more innocent by association,” say Clark, who adds that this innocence by association is also on display when children march alongside veterans in a Memorial Day parade.

“Sit and watch a Memorial Day parade next year and you’ll notice how the presence of children next to those who have given service in war makes the topic of war seem more approachable, palatable, and seemingly innocent,” she says.

But even for adults, making light of death has its limits. As she discovered, people who are dealing with literal death don’t enjoy having fun with it. She saw the contrast in October 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As she recalls, in the Philadelphia suburbs where she conducted her research, local media questioned whether trick-or-treating was appropriate. Some communities and school districts held parties in lieu of trick-or-treating, while some parents still took their children door-to-door – for the kids’ sake – but only visited neighbors they knew.

“What we see here is a hint that shows the purpose of the Halloween ritual,” says Clark. “We get hints at what the functions of rituals are by looking at the exceptions. When death really strikes a community, adults are less eager to enjoy it.”