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How Halloween Helps Us Cope With Death

Dr. Lindsey Harvell-Bowman sits on a sofa decorated by a sugar skull blanket and pillow.
Dr. Lindsey Harvell-Bowman (Photo by Leslie Bretz)

What happens when you think about death? Do your palms start sweating? Does your heart begin to pound? Do you become short of breath? According to Dr. Lindsey Harvell-Bowman, Associate Professor and existential psychologist at James Madison University, this is a natural reaction to our unconscious and an ever-present fear of death. In an interview with VPM, Dr. Harvell-Bowman explains how celebrating Halloween can help us buffer our anxiety around death in a healthy and culturally acceptable way.

Ernest Becker says in The Denial of Death, “The idea of death - the fear of it - haunts the human animal like nothing else.” Dr. Harvell-Bowman finds it interesting that this fear ebbs away at Halloween. “All of a sudden we're interested in blood and guts and scaring ourselves silly,” said Dr. Harvell-Bowman who leads a Terror Management Lab at James Madison University. The Lab was lovingly coined the “Death Lab” by undergraduate and graduate students in psychology and communication studies. There, they research Terror Management Theory which focuses on the psychological effects of death. “We're scared of death because it's a lack of control. We have this evolutionary desire to survive and we know that we're going to die. That poses a deep psychological problem for us,” explained Dr. Harvell-Bowman. While everyone is fearful of death, the average person doesn’t think about it very often until they are reminded of it. For example, when someone has a near-death experience or lives through the death of someone close to them. “When we become aware of our own death, it causes this anxiety and we have to do something with that,” said Dr. Harvell-Bowman. “While we may be afraid of death, the very act of celebrating Halloween buffers that death anxiety.”

People are capable of engaging in “death activities” at Halloween because it is considered culturally acceptable. Harvell-Bowman believes Halloween is society’s way of reminding us of the comforting concept of life after death. The tradition of dressing up as deathly characters at Halloween is an indicator of our subconscious acknowledgment of the afterlife. “You're dressing your kid up as a ghost. So, you are somewhat acknowledging that there is life after death.” Dr. Harvell-Bowman believes that when we frame death like Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, this once a year acknowledgment of death and the afterlife can be very comforting. “It's this really beautiful idea that no matter what religion you are, at this the one time of year [our deceased loved ones] can come back,” said Dr. Harvell-Bowman. “If people are having a hard time with Halloween, celebrating it more like Mexico’s Día de los Muertos would be much better.”

Acknowledging the inevitability of our deaths through Halloween frivolities can help us appreciate our lives more. “Death is coming,” said Dr. Harvell-Bowman. “All you can do is live your life to the fullest, appreciate your close relationships, appreciate every day that you have on earth. None of us know what's going to happen at the end.”

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