I never liked Halloween. It was a time of year that went unmarked in my home and that I dismissed as an American holiday making its way gradually over to this side of the Atlantic. Then I had a child whose favourite time of year is Halloween, even above Christmas and in supporting her love of it, I discovered my own.

Halloween is a time of year when adults can truly embrace and explore fun and playfulness in so many ways. In my book, Why We Play, I write about the importance of the darker side of play and how important it is in our lives to play with darkness.

Playfully engaging with dark themes can help us to develop a mastery over tension-rousing experiences.

There are dark and light aspects to our life, and there are dark and light aspects to play. Play enables a fully lived life. It is important that we can playfully engage with even dark themes in our lives, such as grief, stress, anger, rage, frustration, betrayal and fear, because it helps us to connect with those more icky and uncomfortable parts of ourselves and life that we might otherwise seek to avoid, deny, minimise or dismiss.

The experience of playing connects us with and mobilises a full range of thoughts and feelings, not just those we feel good about. This is intended to help us deal with challenges throughout our lives in a creative, solution-focused way. Play relieves stress while strengthening connection within ourselves and others within our environments. This is because play, even when playing with dark material, is enjoyable. The pleasurable feeling releases endorphins that actively lower stress and help to counteract negative feelings.

When I watch a horror movie and experience the assault on my senses, my heart rate increases, my breath is laboured, my eyes widen and my muscles tense, and I am poised to react for the duration of the movie. Exposure to dark content allows us to engage with darkness in the world from a comfortable distance. In this way, not only books and movies, but also Halloween, offer us a safe way to be scared. It is happening elsewhere to others but you are along for the emotional ride.

Being afraid but knowing it will be okay is powerful not only for children but for all of us.

In part, being afraid helps us to learn that we can master tension-rousing experiences and that we can self-regulate out of a state of heightened fear/emotional arousal. We learn that we can cope with being scared, more scared that we perhaps imagined we could cope with. We gain a sense of satisfaction in this realisation and we get to experience being very close to danger and dangerous people without actual risk to ourselves. There is some excitement in that experience too because these are thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that are outside of our everyday or usual experiences. This allows us to release our darkest thoughts, feelings and urges in a safe and boundaried way.

There is also a hormonal aspect to why we can enjoy being scared. We get a surge in endorphins immediately following a fright/scare. Endorphins are our feel-good chemical. The key here is that this kind of fear can only be pleasurable because we know that we are safe. Without safety, it is just fear, and that is not pleasurable.

This can also be seen in how we seek to playfully scare and frighten each other. I am thinking of those ‘games’ whereby we hide only to jump out unexpectedly when someone else walks by, causing them to yelp and jump in unexpected fright. When we seek to scare others in play, we are exploring what it is like to be the perpetrator of fear – we get to play with power, control and dominance over others. This play offers a safe (even joyous if you both laugh about the scare afterwards) way to connect with our darker impulses.

Embrace fun and play this halloween in the following ways:

Sugar-Coat it: Make Candy-Apples or other Halloween themes treats

Externalise it: Decorate your house

Make the discomfort comfortable: Curl up on your sofa with a bowl of popcorn and a scary movie.

Make fun of it: Play some Halloween games, such as bob for apples. Create a mountain of flour with a grape on the very top and take turns slicing chunks of flour away until it full collapses. Whoever makes it collapse has to lean in and pick up the grape from the flour with their teeth (Tip: use icing sugar instead of flour as it is tastier!). Turn the lights out and using torches tell spooky stories.

Hack away at it: Carve pumpkins and push yourself to do scary designs. Invite friends over and make this and a party. (Tip: Save the flesh you carve out and make pumpkin soup with it. Sprinkle some spices on the washed/dried pumpkin seeds and roast them for tasty little croutons for that soup).

Be influenced: Go on social media and be inspired by what others are doing. Similarly, take cues from children and be the fun house to knock onto this Halloween. Tell them they look great, invite but never insist on a song and have the good treats.

Why We Play

Joanna Fortune

Published: 14 September 2022

Discover how to reconnect with the child in you and unlock the transformative power of play to live a more joyful life.

Joanna Fortune