Halloween is drawing nigh. Mr. Bones, a plastic skeleton from Costco, sits on the side of our house. We have neglected to return him to the attic after our three-year-old discovered him there and let out a blood-curdling scream. Three years ago we stashed him in our closet when another child faced similar emotions. She still shuts the door to the closet when she goes by. A pirate version of Mr. Bones hangs from my neighbor’s porch. Two years ago his presence prevented us from walking to the mailbox. For little ones, Halloween can be a scary time.
Fear: A Powerful Emotion
For those of other ages, the scare factor becomes a thrill. Fear puts our body in a state of arousal, activating our fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight mechanism moves our bodies to action by raising heart rate, tightening muscles, and shortening breathing when the mind perceives a threat. As a pure instinct, this happens without any thought.
Fear is an emotion. We do not make it happen. It happens to us. It can occur because of a personal belief, a necessary decision, or before we have had a chance to think. As Abby Kowitz discussed recently, once an emotion happens, we can use our thinking to increase or decrease that emotion. Cognitive therapy uses this technique to help lessen fear.
Looking to the Future in Fear
According to Thomas Aquinas, fear has to do with the future, a fear of something that is difficult or impossible to overcome. A feeling of hope of escape accompanies fear. Without hope that there was some way out, depression or despair would follow. Because of this hope, fear in itself is not a bad thing. It can push us towards caution or action, depending on the difficulty.
If you feel fear or anxiety, ask yourself, what am I afraid to lose? It could be an opportunity, a loved one, reputation, security or many other possibilities. The answer tells us something about our values. Times of crisis reveal what matters most. Day-to-day anxiety can tell us the same.
Fear can transfer from the thing we fear to lose to the person or thing that makes us afraid. This is called transference. If I fear the loss of safety, I become afraid of the aggressor. If I fear the loss of love (rejection), I may fear to confront my partner. Naming the fear on the deepest level and acknowledging any transference that has occurred with help develop the thought process needed to work through, plan and possibly face the fear.
Sometimes we are afraid because the thing we fear seems so much bigger than us. Its magnitude implies its power. It implies we have less control. Ask yourself, how much control do I have in this situation?
The Greatest Fear
The fear of death, the thing everyone must face, which when it comes is experienced as bigger than anything we can control, more powerful than medical marvels, is exploited on Halloween.
But what happens when it is all make-believe? Those cognitive processes jump in, even unconsciously, reminding us that this is not real, we are in control, we have nothing to lose. Margee Kerr, Ph.D., sociologist, and author of “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear,” explained to Healthline this chemical reaction in our brain is remarkably similar to excitement and surprise. In a moment of fear, our brain quickly assesses the situation in order to act appropriately. Without real danger, the fear becomes a thrill.
For those who believe in the Resurrection and the resurrection of the dead, “death loses its sting” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). As much as instinct warns us to be afraid of death, our belief in God as ever present, more powerful, and more in control than anything, empties the fear of its threat. He becomes the Father we run to when we spot Mr. Bones. He protects us and teaches us not to be afraid.
This is how we come to the origins of revelry in Halloween. This is why Halloween is the Eve of All Saints Day, one of the greatest feasts in the Roman Catholic calendar. It is a demonstration of God’s triumph over death and fear. Christ has conquered the world (John 16:33).