Researcher says Halloween no laughing matter for many youngsters

September 06, 2005

University Park, Pa. -- Halloween may seem like so much harmless fun, a time when adults enjoy laughing in the face of death, and implore their young children to do the same. According to a Penn State researcher, however, the humor of tombstones, monsters and other scary elements is often lost on kids at the ripe age of 6 or 7 -- many of whom don't find the holiday the least bit funny.

Cindy Dell Clark, associate professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State Delaware County, said parents need to realize that scaring the bejeebers out of kids this age isn't necessarily a way to make safe kids' fears of death and other things frightening.

"Halloween is a time when we expose kids to behavior that is not the norm. Children connect the holiday with death," said Clark, whose study, "Tricks of Festival: Halloween, Children and Enculturation -- was published this summer in the anthropological journal, Ethos. "We typically distance ourselves from death and shield children from it, but in this case, young children encounter their fears when they face decorations of skeletons and tombstones."

Of course, not all children are intimidated by the holiday. Not only do they get all the sweets and treats they could ask for, but they also are given the opportunity to turn traditional parent-child roles upside down -- at least for a day. Halloween is what anthropologists call a festival of inversion, a flip-flop festival when kids get more powerful.

"Halloween is a time when children dress up in grown-up costumes and get to demand treats from the adults," said Clark. "Parents see Halloween as mock power for children, but children see it as real power."

Clark's research included interviews with parents and 6- and 7-year-olds following Halloween in 1999, 2000 and 2001, as well as anthropological observations. The most recent studied holiday fell just six weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, an event that changed the way some families celebrated Halloween that year.

"The terrorist attacks made many adults re-evaluate scary Halloween customs and heightened mature angst over the holiday, already associated with urban legends of child harm," Clark said. "Nine-eleven brought out intense grown-up concern about real fears of candy tampering and worse -- and many adults felt there was no longer a need for the play stuff of ghosts and goblins."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017