The Christmas ads have already started. Commercials depicting fat bearded Santas constantly interrupt my favorite shows. Even before Thanksgiving the misnamed “holiday season” makes me feel excluded as an observant Jew — every “Jingle Bells” jingle and garland reminds me that I’m not part of the dominant culture . Despite attempts to include Hanukkah — a relatively minor Jewish holiday — the season still clearly revolves around Christmas. This feeling, though, is made easier because it’s easy to explain: People understand that Christmas is not my holiday. The same is not true of Halloween.
On campus, I have always breathed a sigh of relief once Halloween passes. Growing up, I didn’t trick or treat, and my family did not put up fake cobwebs or plastic skeletons outside our home. Though Halloween has been secularized, its pagan and Christian roots are real, and, for many traditional Jews, that puts partaking in its festivities outside our comfort zones. As a child, I was sad because I never ventured out into my neighborhood in a costume to collect candy. But, as I’ve grown, I’ve lost interest in costumed revelry, and I’ve come to intensely dislike Halloween.
“Halloweek” is a period that takes over campus — or, at least, seems to take over campus — more acutely and for longer than The Game or the “holiday season.” Night after night, it’s impossible to walk home from the library without encountering costumed groups of Yalies out for an evening of fun. Halloween has been a political flashpoint on our campus; it has sparked discussion about cultural appropriation and racism. It appears that students view Halloween as a critical moment in the year. Why does our campus embrace Halloween with such overwhelming zeal?
At least in its modern pop culture manifestations, Halloween is a holiday that encourages us to embrace terror for terror’s sake. I am not a person who relishes fear. I stick to calmer rides at amusement parks and always opt for a rom-com over a horror movie. For this reason, it’s been a relief to feel like Halloween is alien to me. This year, though, I gained a new understanding of fear’s appeal.
A few days before Halloween, a relationship that I was in ended. Sad and having trouble falling asleep, I scrolled through social media endlessly, seeking distraction as I lay in bed with my bright screen. I stumbled across a series of horror stories published in honor of Halloween. Reading them, I found that it was easier to put my phone down and fall asleep if I was feeling fear; above and beyond any other distraction, it supplanted other bad feelings.
For the next week and a half, reading spooky stories became my before-bed activity. Staying up late and sleeping in like so many of my peers were that week, I sought the adrenaline rush that arose when I encountered a scary story. It was easier to lie in bed jumping at the creak of the ceiling above me than it was to lie in bed dealing with my own feelings. However, as time has passed I’ve begun to feel more cheerful. I’ve returned to my usual Talmud study before bed instead of reading scary stories, which has caused me to reflect on why I sought out these stories.
Halloween is about fear, and that might point to why it’s so popular at Yale. Halloween here is protracted and encompassing, allowing those who wish to completely immerse themselves in it to do so. This mostly takes the form of partying, but it also involves haunted houses and the general embrace of the Halloween spirit — Halloweek is eerie, defined by nighttime and masks.
The creepiness of Halloween makes it particularly compelling as a form of escape. Feeling spooked allows us to ignore the worries that press on us, the stresses that make us feel frayed and the sadnesses that stick. For a few nights, Yalies are able to turn to Halloween as a way to feel better. This is not the freewheeling joy of drinking with friends but a less delightful attempt to hide.
What about our Yale experiences is making this a community where we so enthusiastically want to be distracted? What bad feelings are we using Halloween’s scariness to distract us from? As we move beyond Halloweek, we should reflect on what it is that makes us prefer fear to feeling.
Perhaps we would need less distraction if we worked towards creating a culture that valorized our wellbeing over our work. Doing this would be fighting a culture that encourages us to value productivity above all else. We can take steps to make ourselves and others feel more cared for and less stressed; we should speak about our struggles honestly rather than papering them over with short-lived distractions. Turning to love instead of fear to assuage our hurts can be a first step.
Avigayil Halpern is a junior in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .