Today, we celebrate the hall of horrors, the day of the dead, the salute to skeletons, the skulking of black cats, and of course the sweetness of candy — suffused with garish food coloring.
Once a year, on Halloween, adults party. Kids frolic. But this fascination with ghosts, vampires and ghouls doesn’t end for everybody at midnight, Oct. 31.
A 2005 survey, Gallup found that three-quarters of Americans believed in at least one paranormal phenomenon:
extrasensory perception: 41 percent
haunted houses: 37 percent
ghosts or spirits of the dead: 32 percent.
All of which got us wondering about the fascination with things that are invisible to science — and the senses. What do people get from believing in the super-natural — the existence of ghosts — communication with the dead, or relying on a Ouija TM board to make decisions? Do these beliefs have evolutionary or psychological roots?
Beliefs in ghosts and afterlife across the globe
Who believes and why
As every Halloween approaches, it’s easy to think that belief in the supernatural is rising, but “these beliefs have always been there,” says Carson Mencken, who studies the sociology of paranormal belief at Baylor University.
Although the Internet an cable TV both rely on the supernatural, “The paranormal has always been a major entertainment theme,” Mencken says. “The most influential radio show of all time, The War of the Worlds, was paranormal. The X Files was a huge success.”
And Dark Shadows, a soap opera that started a five-year run in 1966 and was remade as a movie in 2012, featured a ghost, a vampire, “werewolves, zombies, man-made monsters, witches, warlocks, time travel, and a parallel universe.”
Like Hollywood, the expanding cable TV market is hungry for paranormal content, Mencken says, and while the shows come and go, “those dealing with paranormal themes around death and the afterlife are still with us.”
Men and women differ in their beliefs in weird stuff, Mencken says. “Men gravitate toward the discovery of monsters, they want to find bigfoot or alien life, while women are much more into ghosts, speaking with the dead, maybe because they tend to die later and want to communicate with a dead husband. Women are much more into psychics, to believe in vampires.”
Vamping with vampires
Vampires, the ghouls that embody “bloodthirsty,” are bread and butter to Tomislav Longinovic, a professor of Slavic language at University of Wisconsin-Madison, who grew up hearing the legends from his grandmother in Belgrade, then capital of Yugoslavia. At Madison, Longinovic teaches a sold-out class on these mythical creatures, which subsist by drinking the blood of the living.
Ghouls, dragons and vampires are a staple of modern entertainment, but vampire legends go back to ancient Greece, says Longinovic. “In folklore, the original vampire is about stealing energy, the life force, and that gets materialized in blood, or in a mysterious substance called manna.”
Like most cultural relics, the persona and message of the vampire have changed over time. Although the 1897 novel Dracula cast the vampire as sexy aristocrat, the Slavic vampire stories of the 17th and 18th centuries were not about personal magnetism or sexuality, Longinovic says. The vampire “was pure aggression; an agent causing disease.”
Longinovic sees an “uncanny connection” between the rise of Balkan nationalism and the interest in vampires. As empires and kingdoms struggled over the changing map of Eastern and Southern Europe, “Vampires become the darker side of the emergence of nations.”
Just as the vampire needs blood to live, “the nation as a collective organism, in order to sustain itself, demands always fresh sacrifices of the blood of the young,” Longinovic says. “Violence is inherent in the nation system,” he says. “This is not obvious … but is an unconscious element of the vampire myth.”
Day of the Dead: Halloween’s Mexican uncle
The Day of the Dead celebration, held Nov. 2, is a second folk tradition relevant to Halloween. According to Tina Fuentes, who prefers the holiday’s euphonious Spanish name, “Dia de los Muertos is rooted in a merger of Aztec tradition with Catholicism.”
Fuentes, director of the school of art at Texas Tech University, adds that “The Aztecs have always had a celebration for the souls of the dead, as they went through different levels to their final destination.”
After the Spanish conquered Mexico in 1521, the Day of the Dead emerged on All Soul’s Day, two days after Halloween. “People go to the grave site and build offrendas, or altars, with flowers and food,” says Fuentes. “It’s a communion, a gathering with past loved ones, a private affair that’s public at the same time, because all the families are gathered at the grave sites.”
Even though a skeleton has long represented the soul of the dead in these celebrations, “It’s not something scary, or negative,” Fuentes says. Although the history of Halloween is “totally separate” from All Soul’s Day and the Day of the Dead, “because of close proximity, they are melding together” in a second cultural amalgamation.
Recently, Fuentes has seen influences from the North in Mexico, as children and even some adults dressing as goblins. “Indigenous people are starting to put on attire that celebrate ghosts and goblins, as opposed to [the previous approach of] looking at the soul and spirit of the loved one. The goblins are more festive in Mexico, and no matter how ugly they look, it is still a happy event; that’s the beauty of Dia de los Muertos.”
Will the wave of crass commercialism, multicolored plastic and weeklong parties that has drowned American Halloween drench Mexico’s more dignified and soulful celebration? “I don’t think it will,” says Fuentes. “It’s so deeply embedded in the culture and the family. This has been in existence for 500 years.”
Why do some believe?
The fascination with the paranormal that is expressed at Halloween reflects a desire for the spiritual, says Alex Skolnick, an assistant professor of psychology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Anthropologists say that every society on Earth has some religious, spiritual feeling. It seems that humans have a really strong need to understand the unexplainable, especially things like death.”
Fear, like disgust, has a death-grip on the imagination, and while people who are easily disgusted would not see a TV show like Fear Factor, “the people who do see it enjoy it,” says Skolnick, who studies the psychology of disgust. “We go to scary, disgusting or sad films because it’s safe to have those emotions when they have nothing to do with us.”
Fear becomes an emotional outlet in the theater or amusement park, and to some extent during routine Halloween shenanigans. “If you can tolerate it,” Skolnick says, “you are entertained, you are disgusted, made afraid, shocked, and you leave. It’s all fun and games, it’s not your real life.”
Longinovic, who studies political and cultural aspects of vampires, sees psychology as the ultimate explanation for our supernatural fascinations. “Freud thought we all have this inherent guilt toward the dead that we have to appease, so we construct these elaborate rituals.” In some societies, “all the dead were vampires, that’s why we had a heavy tombstone, so they cannot return.”
At the end of October in the northern hemisphere, as dark overtakes light and cold crowds warmth, “The boundary between living and dead becomes more permeable,” Longinovic says. “It’s no accident that Halloween is at the time of year when we enter the dark period. Plants are dying, nature is going into a dormant stage, and that’s when we pay homage to the dark side.”
What we have here is failure to communicate
The belief in ghosts and other creatures that bridge the gap between living and dead “provides some proof that there is an afterlife,” says Mencken of Baylor University. “Most monotheistic religions teach that there is something beyond this life on Earth, so if ghosts exist, or if a medium can communicate with a deceased relative, a séance can raise the dead, or a Ouija TM board can communicate beyond the grave, it’s the only empirical proof that there is an afterlife.”
A second motive may affect hard-core believers, Mencken adds. Much as a religious conversion is usually initiated by a friend, Mencken says “when people join a new group [interested in the paranormal], chances are they are joining through a network connection, a friend or an acquaintance.”
Even though some people quickly decide, “‘This is crazy, I quit,’ those who don’t are learning the norms, beliefs and practices, and before you know it, they are hard-core members,” Mencken says. “Now they are doing ghost hunts, filming dark spaces or hoping to hear voices on tape.”
Once you start to believe in psychics, mediums, miraculous healing or ghosts, Mencken says, “You develop selective observing, and everything you see, a noise at night, a slight disturbance in peripheral vision, makes you convinced it’s a ghost. Voices at random in the street are the voices of somebody trying to communicate to you. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, you start interpreting the world by how it fits within that framework.”
Zombie culture rebalances scales of justice!
In survey data, Mencken says, about one-fifth of believers in the paranormal “are marginalized, not doing particularly well by conventional standards, don’t have a lot of money, education or success. The discovery of something that science knows nothing about is one way of making themselves important: ‘I have access to knowledge about how the world works, that no one believes.’”
Today’s zombie culture shows how belief in the supernatural can turn the current political-economic balance in favor of the downtrodden. “The heroes are working class or lower middle class, like police or former military, and they are marginalized by the global economy,” says Mencken. “Once the zombie apocalypse happens, their skills, which the global economy has made obsolete, are now are vitally important for the survival of the human race.
“Somebody who can hammer nails or kill food becomes a hero in the post-apocalypse, compared to the knowledge worker, the Stanford MBA,” says Mencken. “In the post-apocalypse, those people have nothing to give, and their money is worthless. Then, you can burn money.”
– David J. Tenenbaum