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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

Halloween: Playing with and Mastering Fear

Halloween is a celebration of all that is scary. Frightening, personified pumpkins, black cats, ghosts, witches, spiders, skeletons, Ouija boards, and scary stories! What a strange holiday, when you think about it. And how unusual for our culture to go out with our kids at night, in the dark, knocking on strangers' doors asking for candy! So why do we do it?

The Origins of Halloween

Halloween began with the Celtic festival of the dead known as Samhain, when people would wear animal skins and costumes to scare off ghosts. The tradition expanded into All Souls Day, a church-sanctioned holiday that took place the day after the festival, where people would dress as saints, angels and devils. All Souls Day was also referred to as All Saints Day and All-hallows. The traditional Celtic celebration became known as All-Hallows Eve--the night before All-hallows. When the Irish began emigrating to the US seeking refuge from the potato famine, they brought their All-hallows Eve festivities with them, and soon enough, US Americans began celebrating Halloween! So partly following the tradition of ancient ancestors, our children will be dressing up today in all kinds of costumes, running around our neighborhoods, yelling "Trick or Treat", and collecting candy.

Halloween as Cultural Play Therapy

When my kids were very young, their greatest fear was the Big Bad Wolf. They loved stories about wolves--The Three Little Pigs, Peter and the Wolf, etc. In every wolf story, the kids would squeal with excitement when the wolf entered the picture, but take them for a walk in the woods, and they would stop, completely frightened that a wolf might "get" them. One year at Halloween, my oldest son took me by surprise when he said he wanted to wear a wolf costume. Why would he want to be the very thing that scared him the most? In fact, why do any of us, adults included, take a day to celebrate the very experiences that can bring us the most pain, suffering and fear?

Well, it actually makes perfect sense. Our own mortality, and the great unknown of what really happens after life on Earth are inherently frightening things--we are so small in comparison to the ways of the Universe! For young children, of course they are afraid of wolves and strangers and death--they are literally so small and so vulnerable to the big world around them!

Play is one of the most powerful ways that both children and adults can overcome their fears. By getting close, but not too close, we can get a sense of mastery over our fears! Think of it a playful kind of exposure therapy!

When my son dresses up as a wolf, he is engaging in "Role Reversal"--he is no longer this small little boy, vulnerable to the "bad" in the world. Instead, he is the all powerful wolf. He is the one to be frightened of! But just like Max in "Where the Wild Things Are", my son can't really be the wolf--it's only pretend, it's play! This play space makes it a safe space to test out and master our fears. By engaging in storytelling, theater and dress up, my kids have settled their fear of the wolf.

Of course this year, my family will be playing out something new, because fear will always be there--it's part of our biological makeup! And so, we will dress up in scary costumes, knock on our neighbors' doors and touch grapes that feel like eyeballs. We will play with fear, laughing together all the while. So this Halloween, how will you play with your fears? And what will you master this year?


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