Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


It is not, perhaps, particularly insightful to state that Halloween is a weird holiday.  However, in this case I don't mean "weird" in the sense of "spooky," but in the sense of "why the hell do people actually enjoy this?"

That said, it's not that I don't enjoy participating myself.  Last year, for example, I spent the entire school day wearing a vampire costume, complete with fake blood, a cape, and white stage makeup.  The only downside was that I couldn't wear the plastic teeth during class because they had a regrettable tendency to make me drool, something that I bet never happens to real vampires.

So far today at my school, I've seen a variety of witches, several clowns, a few butterflies, a pink inflatable pig, a Viking, and Barack Obama.  I found Obama the scariest, and I don't mean that as some kind of sly political statement.  It's odd, but I've always found rubber masks of all kinds - even the ones intended to be funny - to be seriously creepy.  I think it's the fact that they look human (the best ones look really human) but even while the person inside the mask talks, the expression never changes.  I, and I suspect a lot of people, react viscerally to facial expressions, or lack thereof; we're wired to pick up cues from people's faces, and when there are none there to pick up, it's disconcerting, even if you know that the mask is just rubber and that there's a real (and friendly) person underneath. It's no coincidence that we describe the affect-less faces of the insane "mask-like."  The whole thing is reminiscent of the concept of the "uncanny valley," about which I wrote last year (you can read the post here if you're interested).

Even so, I should perhaps mention that I collect masks.  I have brought home masks from most of our many overseas travel adventures, and they are hung all over our walls (usually in places that take you by surprise and so elicit a bigger reaction when you come around the corner or close the door).  I also really enjoy costumes, especially well-done or clever ones.  (At a Halloween party years ago, a biology teacher friend of mine and his wife, who was a physician's assistant, came dressed in an odd fashion.  He was wearing the pants from a set of military camouflage, and nothing else.  She was wearing the top half (with very short shorts).  When I asked what they were, he replied, "Guess. We're a human body part."  After some questioning, I discovered that they were the upper and lower G.I.)

But I do love being scared, and also being scary.  My mask collection is one of my most prized possessions, even though -- or perhaps because -- it's kind of creepy.  I thoroughly enjoy a good horror movie, and in my fiction writing I frequently make a valiant attempt to scare the absolute bejeezus out of you.  This tendency, which if not universal, is at least very common, begs an explanation.  Why do we like to be scared?

It probably varies from person to person, but I can say that for myself, it's kind of a reassurance that I'm safe and sound.  I don't gravitate toward slasher films -- to me, those are too close to the kind of thing that actually happens, and I have no real desire to watch people, even if they are actors, getting gruesomely massacred.  But a really atmospheric, spooky film about the supernatural is a wonderful experience, largely because after it's over (whew) I can look around at my comfortable house, and think, "thank god this house isn't haunted by ghouls."  And if, later that night, there are some bumps and creaks, and I get scared again, I still know that when I wake up the next morning the sun will be shining (well, okay, this is upstate New York; at least the sun will be rising) and I will still be safe.  I'm alive and unhaunted, and I can get a cup of coffee and revel in the fact that my disbelief in evil spirits has been once again supported by events.

In my opinion, the best exploration of this need to be absolutely terrified was The X Files.  I'm not referring to the movies, both of which (to me) were disappointing, but the television series.  Like any series, they had a few dogs, but the best of them rank right up there with the scariest things I've ever seen.  If you're an aficionado, you might remember the episode "Patience" -- about the batlike creature who waits for twenty years to avenge its murdered mate, and goes around killing all the people who had anything to do with its death.  At the end - when the only remaining survivor is in his cabin in the woods, and hears a noise in the fireplace, and goes to investigate - there's nothing's there, but then he turns around, and OH MY GOD THE BAT THING IS RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIM.  Quite possibly the single scariest moment in the history of television.  Even if you knew it was going to happen, it was the quintessence of all of those childhood fears of the monster under the bed, or what might be looking in the window if you pulled the curtains apart just a crack in the middle of the night.  I don't know about you, but I had a hard time opening the back door to let my dogs in after watching that.  I love my dogs dearly, but it was a sore temptation to let them fend for themselves outside that night.

Then again, we have the added benefit that watching horror films burns calories.  A study just released by some researchers at the University of Westminster found that you can burn a good 200 calories just sitting there shivering.  The best burn, they found, came from watching The Shining (which I would agree is a damn scary film), followed by Jaws and The Exorcist.  Of course, this is probably offset by the tendency of most movie watchers to nosh on pizza, popcorn, and beer while watching, but still, it bears mention as one benefit of indulging in a scary movie every so often.  And there's also, of course, the fact that if you're watching the movie with your significant other, the inevitable huddling together on the couch that these movies usually cause could result in some further, um, calorie-burning activity after the movie ends.

So you can see that there are a multitude of benefits that come from being frightened.  It's only human -- the evidence is that we've been telling scary stories for a very, very long time, and in virtually every culture studied.  Still, it may be that some of you don't share this need to periodically be scared to the point of pants-wetting.  If so, you may find this post nothing more than mildly mystifying.  To the rest of you, I will only wish you a happy Halloween, and sweet dreams tonight.

1 comment:

  1. You want to be really scared?