145. The Cognitive and Moral Worth of Halloween

A still from Ingmar Bergman’s thoughtful horror film The Hour of the Wolf

Aesthetic expressions of horror are produced and enjoyed by people all over the world. But some bemoan such horror and do their best to avoid it. However, when Halloween arrives they find it difficult, given all the decorations, costumes, music, movies, events, and so on, to escape!  Over the last few years I have spoken to quite a few students, colleagues, family members, and neighbors about their unease with Halloween imagery. Some told me they are pleased to see how little horror is present these days. And some would like to see all the horror eradicated! I reflected on these encounters in order to find some justification for horrific imagery.

I think philosopher Cynthia A. Freeland, in her book The Naked and the Undead (Westview, 2000), offers one convincing justification in her reflection on horror films:

“Films of uncanny horror prompt a complex cognitive and emotional response of appreciation for the worldview they represent. We may not endorse or accept their message, but we can find it worth considering and responding to….As a whole, the uncanny object, if it is an artwork like a film, can have an aesthetic power in the way it requires us to feel repulsion or dread, to “see” and reflect about the horrors it so evocatively presents. We could not think seriously about such a worldview if we did not picture it and respond to that image so thoroughly.” (239)

Do we, like Dracula, turn away from self-reflection when it comes to death and evil?

Like many good horror films, the varied imagery of Halloween can be seen as a means to contemplate a worldview that includes threats to the good, repressed feelings and memories, ambiguous identity, death, abnormality, insanity, and so on. In doing so we have an opportunity to think about many elusive phenomena that, while difficult to deal with, are indeed part of our world. This would be a cognitivist or instrumental approach to Halloween, namely, one that sees it as a means to intellectual stimulation that can teach us something and help us see the world and ourselves in a more comprehensive, sensitive, and honest way. And Halloween is qualified to help us in this regard since there is, of course, an ample amount of fun which provides the distance needed to deal with the horror. But we can choose to use the holiday, just like we can use other holidays, for reflection on serious things which, in our busy lives, we tend to overlook.

For example, I have investigated the aesthetic category of the uncanny in some detail which has enriched my experience of Halloween. The experience of the uncanny, as Freud argued in his essay “The Uncanny” (1919), can reveal a return of the repressed which can tell us something about our unconsciousness in ways beyond dream analysis and free association (for more on the uncanny go here). We can also make an effort to engage with some of the classic novels and films associated with Halloween. Obviously, many horror movies and novels are escapist entertainment lacking depth. But some are works of fine art that offer us insights into types of action that can teach us universal truths about the human condition (for example, see my series on Dracula here.) And I have learned a great deal by investigating the nature of Franz Liszt’s demonic music which offers insights into the nature evil and, by contrast with evil, the nature of the good (see here). In doing so, I have been able to retrieve some insights into the human condition which, in our consumer society, often get lost in an effort to make everything accessible to pop culture. So much art is kitsch: it is easy to swallow, formulaic, and, in many cases, a lie. We escape through this thoughtless art from a difficult world we would rather forget. Now there is a time and place for such art. But isn’t there a time and place to thoughtfully reflect on darker expressions of the human condition? If so, then perhaps the Halloween season is that time.

Moreover, we can see moral dimensions to this reflection as well. The memento mori (remember that you have to die) tradition “is the medieval Latin theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. It is related to the ars moriendi (“The Art of Dying”) and related literature. Memento mori has been an important part of ascetic disciplines as a means of perfecting the character, by cultivating detachment and other virtues, and turning the attention towards the immortality of the soul and the afterlife.” (Wikipedia). Memento mori art, far from coming out once a year, was integrated into people’s homes and, of course, places of worship. It served a cognitive and moral function despite its horror. For example, Philippe de Champaigne’s Vanitas (c. 1671) presents the three essentials for us to contemplate, namely, Life, Death, and Time:

We should also think of the many depictions of the dance of death in which Death appears to take everyone away regardless of their stations in life. Hans Holbein’s (c. 1497-1543) disturbing yet funny woodcuts are excellent examples. Here is his image of Death coming to take away even the doctor who helps preserve life:

These works aren’t only instrumental to understanding something. They were the means to practicing something and becoming a better person. Cultures all around the world have different ways of remembering death and incorporating such memory into their lives. The lives we are so caught up in will not last forever; indeed, they may not last another year, day, or minute. Seeing strange images of horror all over the environment for a few weeks can, perhaps, put some things into perspective if we choose to remember death.

I also think horror can serve a moral function if we invoke something which Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), in his book Critique of Judgment, referred to as the dynamic sublime. Typically this form of the sublime occurs when we make judgments about mighty things that have the capacity to hinder, resist, and destroy our physical well-being. Kant gives some examples: “Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river, and the like, make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might.” In such cases we experience the might of nature and, to be sure, experience displeasure in the revelation that our physical powers, even when extended by technology, are so exceedingly small. But if we are making a judgment of the sublime we also come to realize that we are free to stand up to such overpowering might. We come to see that, while our body and personal belongings are obviously dependent on the forces of nature, our personhood exists as free and independent of these forces. This awareness of our freedom allows pleasure to follow displeasure. Thus the sublime is able to edify us as free souls even as it shows us the limits of our bodies. This is important since our capacity to act freely is what makes morality possible (for my more thorough account of the sublime in Kant’s philosophy go here).

John Martin The Great Day of His Wrath (circa 1851)

We can easily connect this account of the sublime to horror as follows: certain fictional depictions of terror offer us, on the one hand, ways for our imagination to experience absolute defeat in the presence of dark forces as far as our finite bodies are concerned and, on the other hand, this very defeat can allow us to experience our capacity to freely stand up to such might should the real occasion arise. Some horror films show us there are forces over which our natural bodies and technology have, ultimately, no control (for example, The Shining). But such pessimism can end up invoking an optimistic view concerning our lives as free moral agents. This, I think, is one of the ways horror brings pleasure: it offers us an experience of the sublime that reveals our freedom and dignity as moral agents.

Given this quick instrumental analysis of Halloween as potentially a means to cognitive and moral development, I say, against some efforts underway to the contrary:

Keep the horror in Halloween!

A creepy still from John Carpenter’s classic Halloween

For my post on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and COVID-19, go here.

For my post on Medusa, go here.

For my post on ugliness in art, go here.

  1. Nancy G on

    Love your blog and its message, Dwight. Philippe de Champaigne’s still life and Holbein’s woodcuts are great references for your theme as well as visual reminders of our vulnerability. I particularly love the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead (Nov.1st) where people laugh at death and joyously honor the passing of loved ones by laying flowers (marigolds) on their graves.

    Your conclusion is perfect; keep the horror in Halloween (but also the fun)!

  2. Miltjon Markakolaj on

    Great work professor Goodyear, I really liked the part which you talked about reflecting on death. It fascinating everything is born and then dies. Or does it? Reading philosophers such as Epicurus, Lucretius etc.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Maximina Constantino on

    Most definitely, “keep the horror in Halloween!”. I enjoyed writing about, Freud, for my psychology classes. This has sparked my interest, of “The Uncanny”. I truly want to see what stage it falls on, or if there are any to begin with. Michael Meyers standing behind the clothes-lines, still gives me the creeps! This iconic Halloween movie of the late 70’s never gets boring. I am intrigued to know, that philosophy has a theory on Halloween, very interesting. However, does Halloween celebrate death of others, or is it to glorify the goodness or means of our own lives? Good blog, and thank for the information.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      I am glad you enjoyed the blog, thanks for reading. Yes, the uncanny is a fascinating topic. If we try and relate it to Freud’s stages, then I suppose, based on his examples in his essay “The Uncanny,” that it would appear from the genital stage on since young children exhibit and enjoy various behavior (animism, doubling themselves with imaginary friends, and enjoying repetition for example) that adults find uncanny. However, I, along with many others I know, have had plenty of uncanny experiences as children! So I wouldn’t accept this analysis. You also ask about Halloween as a means to celebrate the death the others. Well, here we can certainly acknowledge Freud’s emphasis on the sadistic tendencies in so many humans and note that Halloween offers plenty of ways to express such tendencies in ways that are sublimated rather than neurotic. Such sublimations, through imagery, movies, role playing, fantasy, and so on, can serve as a catharsis which can (following Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy) purge negative emotions and help bring more control to the soul (a moral benefit). And it can be cognitively interesting to study sadism in creepy literature and film from a safe distance to better understand it (a cognitive benefit). Now, this is not about “celebrating” the death of others: if someone genuinely celebrates the harm of the others then that is obviously a problem and is not what most people are up to on Halloween. But I think exploring the death of others (and oneself) can be beneficial within the limits of the points just made. Such benefits need not, as you say, be about glorifying the goodness of our own lives. But if my analysis based on the sublime and remembering death makes sense, then Halloween can at least be a means to becoming a better person.

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