Ask Abbie: Fear of Halloween

Published 5:42 pm Saturday, October 26, 2013

Q: My sister thinks Halloween makes children more scared, so she won’t let her kids participate in any of its activities. I disagree with her. To me Halloween is a day for kids to wear costumes, get tons of candy, and have fun. I also think if they get scared a little bit by Halloween stuff it’s OK because it’s just part of being a kid. Our differences of opinion seem to be a big issue between us every year around the holiday. What is your opinion?

A: The county fair has come to town. Imagine you are outside the popular Haunted House attraction observing people as they exit. Is everyone running out scared? I have actually made this observation and found that not everyone who left the Haunted House displayed the same reaction. Some appeared scared, some happy, some unaffected, and some angry for having wasted their money on the experience. The following examines why multiple human reactions to a common experience, such as a haunted house or Halloween, exist and will help you better understand the differences of opinion between you and your sister.

Everyone has been given an instinctual predisposition to fear any stimulus that threatens the survival of his species. Poisonous snakes, for instance, would be considered a species-threatening stimulus. It can then be inferred if a stimulus is non-species threatening, a person is not instinctually predisposed to fear it. A haunted house and Halloween would be considered non-species-threatening stimuli. In 1920 American psychologist John Watson sought to determine why, if not for an instinctual predisposition to do so, a person would fear a stimulus that does not threaten his species.

Watson first wanted to see if it was possible to teach an eight-month-old infant, “Little Albert,” to fear a certain type of laboratory test animals. In order to determine which type of animal Little Albert liked the most, Watson exposed him to many different types of animals. Little Albert displayed the most joy at the sight of white rats and even tried to reach out to them. Watson proceeded to conduct a Pavlovian conditioning experiment using Little Albert as the subject, white rats as the neutral stimuli, and a loud noise as the negative consequence. The psychologist repetitively exposed Little Albert to white rats and whenever he showed interest in one, Watson would sound a terrifyingly loud noise from directly behind the child.

Little Albert very quickly learned to fear white rats as well as other furry animals and even a Santa mask with a white beard. Whenever he saw these things, he cried and tried to move away from them. Watson’s results proved that fear of a non-species-threatening stimulus could be conditioned into existence. This information also provides sufficient explanation for how multiple human reactions to a common experience can occur. Watson’s findings still apply today even though the methods he used to obtain them would be considered unethical and not allowed under today’s American Psychological Association’s legislative ethics code.

Many experiments subsequent to Watson’s have been conducted to determine if fear, along with being conditioned to exist, could also be conditioned to no longer exist. In order to make this determination, researchers focused on exposure. For instance, a person who feared dogs was repeatedly exposed to dogs and eventually encouraged to take small steps toward touching one. It was found that new positive memories, such as “dogs are not going to harm me,” gradually began to override old negative memories such as “dogs are going to hurt me.” These results proved that fear could be conditioned out of existence.

Considering the preceding information, your question can now be given an appropriate response. When a child is repetitively exposed to Halloween in combination with a negative consequence such as being told the holiday is evil or witnessing a cruel act on the actual day, he is likely to become more scared on Halloween. If, on the other hand, a child has not been conditioned to fear Halloween, he is not likely to become more scared on Halloween.

In addition, it is never too late for a child or an adult who fears Halloween to become no longer fearful of it. When repetitively exposed to positive memory making experiences in direct association with the holiday fears can be conquered.

Thought for the day: A life entrapped by non-species-threatening fear is unable to reach its full potential. Is your life caught inside the Haunted House or is free to move toward your reward?

ABBIE LONG is a Franklin native and advice columnist for The Tidewater News. Submit your questions to