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Halloween: rituals, power, and killer clowns

Zulfikar Abbany | Conor Dillon
October 31, 2016

Think Halloween is all harmless fun, tricks and treats? Wrong. It's a social ritual, a power struggle between adults and the young, and with killer clowns on the loose this year, things may just get real.

China Halloween Lichtshow Kürbis Mädchen
Image: picture-alliance/ZUMA PRESS

Who would have thought Halloween was an important social ritual? Who would have thought Halloween empowered children and helped them learn about western culture? Well, not I. But anthropologists say it's all part of "enculturation" - one of the ways in which we bring kids into the cultural fold.

Halloween teaches kids about fear, evil, ageing and death... witches, ghosts, sweets even. And if the most recent developments are anything to go on, we're all learning more about clowns, and why they can be so darn terrifying.

To some, the ritual of Halloween is as important as Christmas, a bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah, male circumcision, or the aqueeqah in Islam.

And Cindy Dell Clark, an associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers University Camden in the US, says ritual is far more important than conventional developmental psychology has ever understood.

"Conventional developmental psychology looks at childhood in terms of what children are going to become. It emphasises cognition, rational thinking, and the process by which children become adult-like. Ritual communicates differently, more like poetry," says Clark.

USA Pete Souza Barack Obama Rückblick
Power struggle between young and old... or US President Obama caught by a trick-or-treating SpidermanImage: picture alliance/dpa/Pete Souza

Rituals, like first communion or the Fourth of July fireworks, are sensory experiences that "bring children into the culture wordlessly, without any instruction."

"All these sensory-motor acts, the movements [they make], help them form a bond with the values they are a becoming part of," says Clark. "[It's not the same as] someone explaining to them technically what's going on. It's a sensory experience that is literally part of their body."

Power to the little monsters

But what is Halloween - if you didn't happen to grow up in North America, the UK, Australia, or other countries where it's an annual tradition?   

Well, no matter how commercialized Halloween has become, the puritans among us maintain its religious origins. Some say it stems from a Celtic pagan holiday called Samhain, a celebration to mark the end of harvest in October. Others say it is more a Christian event - "All Hallows Eve" - the day before All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2.

For kids, however, Halloween is a time for challenging the normal power structures in society. It is a time to upend temporarily the power struggles between the young and adults.

New Yorker zeigen kostümierte Hunde zu Halloween
Halloween is temporary empowerment for kids and dogs alikeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Schmitt-Tegge

One, don a costume - that of a superhero, a witch, or even a beautiful princess - and you become as powerful as the character you seek to portray.

Two, rock around the neighborhood demanding sweets from strangers. Not only do you have to overcome your fear of the night, but the fear of approaching those strangers, and all the grizzly decorations, the cobwebs and gravestones. And that's before you trick or treat.

Three, the treats. Candy is often the coinage of power between adults and their kids. It's also the forbidden fruit that lingers well after Halloween is over. Unless, that is, your child lives with diabetes. Clark says some parents exchange candy for cash. But buying the candy back can have its own impact.

"The candy is the booty of the night. The kids have risen to this challenge, they've visited the homes of strangers that are usually considered dangerous, and they've brought home all this candy," says Clark.

Gruselorte Halloween im Europa-Park
For some Halloween a playful confrontation with death...Image: Europa-Park

And how parents interact with children around that candy is "significant."   

"You have to understand the candy is not just something that appeals to the natural oral greed of children, but it's a sign of power," says Clark.

Evolution of the trick

Now let us not forget the threat of the trick at Halloween. It has evolved with the ritual from harmless jokes like hiding a "neighbor's gate in the bushes" to "genuinely hurtful pranks," including arson in the 1980s.  

These days it seems there are fewer tricks and more cases of adults scare the kids. Perhaps it's a way for them to claw back some of that power on the night.

But how this tactic will play out with the current wave of "killer clowns" is anyone's guess.

In one attack in the German capital, a 16-year-old wearing a clown's mask and carrying a hammer apparently wanted to scare a group of kids as a prank. A 14-year-old among the group allegedly pulled a knife in response and stabbed the "attacker," sending him to hospital. 

Germany's interior minister Thomas de Maizière has now called for zero-tolerance on the killer clowns, who started their march in the US.

... for others it can be a prank gone wrong. So beware of "killer clowns" this HalloweenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

In the US, authorities are also clamping down on clowns in light of the holiday.

Really not funny

The killer clowns are clearly too scary. Even the police in Berlin called the stabbing "really not funny."

Clowns "mess with that fundamental pattern recognition which is key to horror" says Steven Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

In an interview with Conor Dillon, host of DW's weekly science radio show, Spectrum, Schlozman says "pattern recognition sets in at around age 2 or 3, even before kids have fully developed language."

It means humans, like other animals, can recognize things very quickly without really knowing why they know what they know.

"So they recognize certain key features that allow them to size up a situation and decide whether it's worth worrying about," says Schlozman. "Clowns are easily recognized as human-like, but their features are exaggerated, grotesque sometimes, they get up in your face… they violate the rules of western pattern recognition."

Clowns Kostüme
And try to have funImage: picture-alliance/dpa/E. S. Lesser

And… a clown wielding a hammer can be very, very scary.

A meeting of horrors

Clowns are not strictly part of the Halloween tradition. It's more ghosts and witches, zombies and mummies, cobwebs and cauldrons.

But the crazy - if not killer - clowns do fit somehow. They have that same white face of death. And death is another of those taboo subjects that adults allow to creep out in the darkness at Halloween.

The question is: should they?

"Adults who hide behind bushes think it's really fun to scare, but if you're six or seven, you take the scare very literally," says Clark.

What adults don't realize is that when they hand out treats from a coffin, they are making the child "as a price of the rite of passage of power" confront death directly.

Are we too protective of children? Death is after all a part of life, as adults know, all too well.

"The reason adults love mocking death is because they're the ones who are going to face it sooner," says Clark. "They're having a cathartic experience by lampooning death. But as a side-effect their kids might be pushed into experiences a little too soon."

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people