Halloween has gotten a lot more ghoulishly haunting in the last few years, transforming neighbourhoods into Nights of the Living Dead that would do a Hollywood set director proud.
But while you're covering your six-year-old's eyes on the trick-or-treating rounds tonight, it might actually be healthy for older souls to stare death in the face.
An interesting Slate article by Oliver Burkeman proposes that Halloween should be about more than "industrial quantities of low-quality candy and college students dressed as Sexy Mitt Romney." What the occasion really needs is more death. To make the case, he goes on to cite historical examples. Public clocks with death imagery in Renaissance Europe. Roman Generals, who after a victory, would get slaves to walk behind them softly chanting the creepy mantra: "Remember you shall die." And of course, the long-standing Mexican tradition, the Day of the Dead, in which families party in cemeteries among their lost loved ones.
But science is also weighing in, with something that psychologists call "terror management theory," the not-so-new idea that our fear of death dissipates when we face it. Not only that, but it may make us nicer as well: In one experiment, people walking through a cemetery more quickly came to the aid of another person, compared to those strolling on tombstone-free streets a few blocks away. An awareness of life's limited contract reminds us to make time for the pumpkin-carving opportunities with our kids, and quality moments with our friends. Essentially, since we're all heading down the same path, we may as well laugh it up.
For those who feel the need to dig more deeply into fears of their own mortality, there's always the neighbourhood "death café," where over a cup of tea you can discuss, among other end-of-life quandaries, what you should wear in your coffin. Early death cafés were hosted in Switzerland, have spread most recently to Britain, and now into the United States. The website doesn't yet record a Canadian location, but if you are interested in hosting one, you may find some background and suggestions on what food to serve. (Mozzarella, tomato and pesto on a baguette is apparently a good companion when you are debating the merits of cremation over burial.)
Alternatively, you can just watch The Shining curled up in the dark with someone you love, covering off the first benefit of good terror management by building a shared, quality experience. And according to a new British study, you may even stave off death for a little while longer by burning some unneeded calories. But only if you don't hide your eyes during the really scary parts.