Dr Peter Kinderman is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool and an honorary consultant clinical psychologist with Mersey Care NHS Trust.
On Peter’s second appearance on the University of Liverpool Podcast, he discusses the reasons behind our fascination with, and enjoyment of, Halloween. With one in six people in Great Britain experiencing anxiety or depression each week, Peter believes taking part in Halloween traditions can, paradoxically, be therapeutic.
5 ways celebrating Halloween can benefit our mental health
- We can explore our fears in a safe environment
Peter admits he likes to be scared and feel the adrenalin rush that his body creates from fear – but only in controlled circumstances.
He cites rollercoasters as a prime example: he enjoys riding scary rollercoasters, but only if they are 100 per cent safe. “I don’t really want to be scared,” he says. “I want to flirt with scariness.”
- It helps us deal better with unexpected twists
Life is unpredictable. Halloween, says Peter, is a way for humans to practice managing anxiety, much in the same way a ball of cotton is practice for a kitten learning to hunt.
Having an environment in which we can learn to control our fears and understand acceptable parameters prevents us from being “floored” by anxiety every time something unexpected occurs.
“You’re preparing yourself for things that are a little bit more serious,” he says.
- Acknowledging uncomfortable truths is healthy
Few people want to actively engage with thoughts of death, says Peter. But he believes our mental health is stronger for not ignoring difficult issues.
He points to changing representations of, and attitudes towards, death, that society has carried throughout history – from skulls on walking canes in Victorian times through to today’s Goth subculture. He explains: “What they’re doing is actively thinking about an important issue… it prepares us for life to think about death.”
He believes Halloween falls into the same category as these visual representations. They are “little, safe reminders” of something we might instead prefer to ignore, but by engaging with them, it makes us mentally stronger.
- Mastery creates a sense of satisfaction
‘Mastery’ is a well-known concept in clinical psychology. It explains our motivation when we begin a new hobby: the feelings of satisfaction come not just from exploring something new, but from ultimately mastering a previously unknown skill.
Peter argues: “It often happens with games and playthings, and even games you can play on your mobile phone. When you get the hang of it, you get a certain reward.” Once that reward has been achieved, adds Peter, we can quickly lose interest in the activity because our motivation fades.
In a similar way, Halloween helps us master some of our fears, as we get accustomed to confronting – and mastering them – year after year.
- Our children learn to be confident
With mastery comes confidence, and it is this that enables us to laugh and smile at Halloween. Peter believes this can have an extremely positive effect on our children, who look to their parents for cues about how they should react to the world around them.
By learning from confident parents, children can conquer their own fears. “It’s a good message to give to our children… I’m in charge of this, and not only am I in charge of this, I can play with it and I can laugh at it.”
For a large-scale demonstration of this, Peter points to Mexico’s ‘Day of the Dead’ festival, where families gather in a mass celebration full of fun and good food. “That’s us laughing in the face of death,” he contends. “That’s what we do. It’s what being alive is all about.”
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