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Celebrating Halloween? We've maxed out on dread in 2020 (opinion)

CNN logo CNN 10/25/2020 Opinion by Holly Thomas
Closeup of unrecognizable little girl wearing Halloween costume and holding pumpkin basket in trick or treat season, copy space; Shutterstock ID 1499358104; Job: Design © Shutterstock Closeup of unrecognizable little girl wearing Halloween costume and holding pumpkin basket in trick or treat season, copy space; Shutterstock ID 1499358104; Job: Design

The social significance of Halloween in the US is familiar across the world, thanks in no small part to virtually every American sitcom ever made.

During the first wave of the pandemic in the UK, my boyfriend's chief form of escapism was the television comedy "Modern Family." As is common in comforting, set-your-watch-by-it TV, the series features a dedicated episode every season in which the Dunphy clan is corralled by overworked mom Claire (played by actress Julie Bowen) into ever more absurd scare scenes, complete with preposterously elaborate props, and costumes no one with a regular job could realistically create or afford.

The question this episode always prompted from my Halloween-hating beloved — besides "No, but seriously, how rich are they?" — was "What's the point?" In the past, he could justifiably have been rebuffed as a massive downer. But as October 31 approaches, and people in the US, UK and elsewhere consider the possibility of "organizing something" for Halloween, the idea of celebrating a non-religious, non-commemorative holiday — even accounting for socially distanced modifications — feels pretty uncomfortable.

An obvious explanation for this might be "Well duh, it's a night all about ghosts and death, and we're in the middle of a deadly pandemic." But I don't think that's it. Yes, a millennium or so ago the Celts did some very unfortunate dressing-up in the name of tricking evil spirits. But the modern popular incarnation of Halloween, which is as much (if not more) about adults letting off steam as kids getting their candy, has as much to do with death as ghosting someone on Tinder has.

It seems unlikely that the usual hordes of "zeitgeist, but make it sexy" college students, and fright-night-obsessed parents ever really paused amid the slasher movies or apple bobbing to ponder: "but my mortality." The discomfort with Halloween 2020 lies elsewhere, and is easier to identify as soon as we recognize the night for what it is: a frivolous pop-cultural exercise, on which the organizers — adults — superimpose their most basic desires.

One of those basic desires, of course, is the thrill of being frightened in the superficial, gasp-in-the-movie-theatre sense, rather than the "How will I make rent" or "Someone I know could die" sense, of course. According to science, this is because the fleeting shock of the clown appearing in "It" activates our body's fight-or-flight response, and triggers the discharge of neurotransmitters like dopamine (which are also released when we're happy).

At this point, your body assesses the situation for any real threat. If you're at the movies and feel basically safe, your nervous system will relax, leaving you with the pleasant, stress-relieving effect of a brief natural high. This can even be a bonding exercise — as CNN noted last year, your emotional reaction to the experience of a frivolous shock can be intensified by the reactions of others nearby. Throw in some overboard decorations, alcohol, sugar, and vaguely thematic leotards, and you've got a neurochemical funfest which, for grown-ups especially, might serve to briefly relieve some of the pressure of everyday life.

Enter fall 2020, when our prevailing collective emotion is constant dread and anxiety. There's a decent chance that for many, that's going to somewhat negate the shock-relief mechanism that Halloween's spooky thrills rely upon.

To make a sweeping, non-scientific comparison, I think it's interesting to look at two massive viewing trends we've seen this year. Back in early March, when Covid-19 was still a new concept that hadn't materially affected so many people's lives, many people started obsessively watching the 2011 thriller "Contagion," in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays patient zero in a pandemic that ravages the globe. Lists were published of similar disease disaster-themed movies to enjoy, and for some at least, the idea of an actual global pandemic clearly still felt abstract enough to proffer an odd frisson of excitement while watching a fictional one on screen.

Fast-forward to October, and little on our entertainment screens has provoked as much noise as the saccharine, candy floss-light, "Emily In Paris." We've maxed out on dread, and are investing instead in the glossy, culturally insensitive adventures of a hot social media manager.

Halloween-as-usual embodies the spirit of both these cultural benchmarks. You get the thrill of a temporary fright, and the silly, sugary kick of all the trimmings that go alongside it. But put them together in the new world we're living in, and the whole thing feels out of sync.

The shared high of the temporary spook is gone, and without it, we're just underdressed adults risking our health and that of our loved ones for the excuse of excessive candy and booze we could easily just buy and consume in private, as if that's not what we've been doing for the last eight months. Sure, costumes are fun, but not so much when the only people you're wearing them with are as familiar to you as the well of anxiety you've not been able to shake since spring.

I'm not suggesting we cancel Halloween 2020 for kids. After such a weird year, putting together a fun evening where they can forget about all the real horrors outside with some plastic horror indoors sounds brilliant. I guess my message to Halloween-fancying adults in 2020 is: If dressing up as sexy mail-in ballots with your housemates gets you off, more power to you. Just save the full Claire Dunphy experience for another year.

a close up of a woman with red hair looking at the camera: Holly Thomas © Holly Thomas Holly Thomas
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