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Halloween: Ghosts and Goblins

by the Staff of the Child Study Center


Halloween, as it is celebrated today, is a melding of many myths, religious practices, and cultural traditions. Children and parents are most familiar with the practice of dressing up and going trick-or-treating. Creating a costume, decorating pumpkins, and putting skeletons, cobwebs and lanterns in windows, provide an opportunity to use imagination and explore fantasy and fears in manageable ways.

There are times when Halloween comes in the midst of times of real fears, either personal to a family, such as having a family member in the military, or more general, such as living in a post-hurricane area. Adjustments to the usual festivities may be in order given a child's own situation, feelings and behaviors, and issues at large in the neighborhood, community, or country.

Helping with the outside: Costumes and celebrations

  • Parents may require that children go in groups or, for younger ones, with parents in tow. The temptation to eat all the treats that are collected is difficult for trick-or-treaters to resist. Although the usual precaution of eating only wrapped candy still applies, parents may wish to encourage no eating until children return home. In addition to making sure children have a meal or good snack before they go out, parents may want to give children a bag of treats to eat along the way, staving off the impulse to immediately eat what is collected.

  • Pranks are often a mainstay of Halloween activities. At times of real threat, such in times of conflict or natural disasters, people may be more on-edge than usual. Therefore pranks should be discouraged. When there is heightened arousal to sights and sounds, it's best to be considerate of others still needing time to cope with their fear of real events. Alternatives should be encouraged. Decorating a backyard as a spook house, having a face-painting party, or having a nighttime block party where guidelines and supplies for some high jinks are allowed, can satisfy traditions and allow for an escape from the sense of sadness that may exist in the world.

  • Different events and situations call for increased sensitivity. It would be in poor taste to dress in ethnic garb that encourages stereotypes and bias.

  • It's always a good idea to make sure children and teens have full vision in their costumes. This minimizes the chance of their feeling unprepared or being caught off guard. Homemade costumes are always viable options as a statement of one's own creativity and individuality. The usual fantasy characters are still appropriate: Frankenstein, Dracula, ghosts. It's quite clear to most children that these are make- believe ghouls and goblins and not part of everyday reality. Fantasy masks or costumes generated from pop culture and literature are always in order. Rock stars, television characters, and superheroes are all worthy forms of disguise. Dressing up as real heroes—firemen, policemen, doctors, teachers—sends a positive message to the child and the public.

  • Children and teens are also incredibly responsive to opportunities to help out other children and teens. UNICEF collections, a longstanding part of many Halloween celebrations, as well as other avenues for contributing to others can also be incorporated into events. Fundraising activities could easily be used as the focus for a Halloween party for children at any age.

  • Review safety issues with a goal of helping children feel in control rather than scared. It bears repeating the usual safety measures since there are often more cars, people roaming about, and unusual behaviors on Halloween night. Review such precautions as no talking to or accepting rides from strangers. The need for cell phones and beepers that used to be cause for argument amongst parents and children seem now to be more of a necessity for communication and as a safeguard against feeling insecure. Halloween night affords the uncommon but acceptable chance to ring a stranger's doorbell and ask for help if one feels unsure or unsafe.

  • In uncertain times, both parents and children (including teens) benefit from knowing where each other will be, day or night.

Helping with the inside: thoughts and feelings

  • Children's age, temperament, and style always dictate their participation in Halloween events. It is not unusual for some younger children to be fearful of scary masks or to be afraid of clowns. Some middle and junior high schoolers want to follow the trends of peers and insist on particular costumes. These individual differences are always to be respected.

  • Whenever there are stresses in the home or stresses provoked by events in the news, parents should be sensitive to how such events may be affecting their children and their participation in Halloween activities. Scary movies may need to be avoided for a time and replaced with more lighthearted fare.

  • Parents should know ahead of time the types of things that may trigger fear in their children -- sights, sounds, smells. They can help their child by anticipating what they might see, hear, or smell and give them explanations to help them control any misinformation and handle new occurrences. They can also teach their child strategies for managing their anxiety, such as deep breathing, and reinforce safety instructions.

  • Parents must monitor their own feelings and worries about Halloween and outside dangers, especially in tense times of war and conflict at home and abroad. Most children crave a return to normal routines including the "scary" Halloween holiday. Parents must put aside their own fears so as not to scare their children and provoke unnecessary worry during a usually festive event.

Helping after Halloween: Checking in

  • Halloween is most often a time of fun for children. But parents should watch for things that may not have gone as planned. Most children enjoy encountering a pretend spook and getting over their fright. But some children, especially those that may have just experienced some type of stress, may have new or renewed difficulties. Being supportive when a child experiences a night or two of anxiety, or needs to sleep with a light on, may be all it takes to recover a sense of safety. However, some reactions may be related to recent stressful events rather than just a Halloween scare. For those children still fearful and bothered by thoughts and feelings that don't show signs of improvement, checking with a professional who can teach strategies to get back in control may be of value.
Date Published: October 22, 2001
Date Reviewed: October 9, 2008