Terror Management Theory Says We Should Take Halloween More Seriously

The state of the universe.
Oct. 31 2012 3:55 AM

Halloween Needs More Death

Horror is the counterintuitive path to happiness.

The White House is lit with orange light as a group of 'skeletons' perform.
The White House is lit with orange light as a group of skeletons'perform at the North Portico on Oct. 31, 2009

Photograph by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

A couple of Novembers ago, around midnight in a cemetery outside Mexico City, I gate-crashed a party for the dead. In many parts of Mexico, these all-night, alcohol-fueled graveyard celebrations are a mainstay of El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Whole families join in: kids, parents, grandparents, and (in their own way) the deceased themselves, serenaded by musicians who stroll from headstone to headstone. Yet for all the levity, El Día de los Muertos is very explicitly a celebration of mortality—and for an outsider more familiar with the cartoon spookiness of America’s Halloween, this comes as a jolt. On Oct. 31, what we celebrate are industrial quantities of low-quality candy and college students dressed as Sexy Mitt Romney. Which is why I’ve grown accustomed to skeptical reactions when I suggest that what Halloween really needs is more death.

The notion that we might stand to benefit psychologically from dwelling more on our mortality isn’t a new one, of course. It’s what motivated the largely forgotten tradition of memento mori: victorious Roman generals, according to legend, would order a slave to follow behind them on parade, murmuring “remember you shall die.” In Renaissance Europe, public clocks bearing images of death and the slogan “tempus fugit” served as reminders that time was running out. These days, with the dying process hidden behind closed doors, it’s all too easy to ignore the inevitable. Sure, we forward inspiring Steve Jobs quotes on the subject, and pore over lists of 100 places to go or things to eat “before you die,” but none of this really entails staring mortality in the face. (If it did, those lists of 100 things would come with actuarial tables, so you could calculate how long you’ve got left.) This refusal to contemplate death is a pity, because research from the growing psychological sub-field of “terror management theory” suggests we might be significantly happier if we did.

Terror management grew from the work of the anthropologist Ernest Becker, whose 1973 magnum opus The Denial of Death reads a little like Freud, but with much of the sex taken out. For Becker, what we struggle so mightily to repress isn’t sexual desire, but the fact that we’re going to die. “The idea of death, the fear of it, stalks the human animal like nothing else,” he writes. And vast swathes of human activity, he argues, from the greatest artworks to the bloodiest wars, are best understood as “immortality projects”: desperate struggles by all-too-mortal humans to subconsciously convince themselves they’ll live forever. (Death-denial, in this view, isn’t all bad: A society completely at ease with mortality wouldn’t fight wars, but it might never have produced a Shakespeare or an Edison, either.)

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In recent years, social psychologists have put Becker’s theories to the test, mainly by reminding people of their mortality, then monitoring how their attitudes and behaviors change. Many of the early results were grim: Increasing people’s death-awareness seemed only to make them more aggressive, more prone to prejudice against strangers, and more fond of authoritarian rulers. Also—and whether this is good news or bad will depend on your politics—it seemed to make them more right-wing. In one 2003 study, participants filled out long, dull questionnaires—except that for one group of respondents, two questions about their TV-watching habits were replaced with questions about death. (One of them was: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you.”) Later, when the subjects read an essay supportive of George W. Bush’s policies in the war on terror, the death-contemplators were far more likely to agree with the essay.

Newer studies, though, suggest that what’s crucial is how you remind people about death: Do it more gently and subliminally, and in the context of topics other than terrorism and war, and it makes people more compassionate, happier, and healthier. In a charming study published in 2008, pedestrians passing through a cemetery overheard an actor talking loudly on a cellphone about the importance of helping people, or a neutral topic. Then another actor dropped her notebook. The people in the cemetery, with its subliminal reminders of death, were 40 percent more likely to stop to help than those walking along a street a short distance away. Other research shows that when climate change is being discussed, death-awareness makes people more inclusive. It can also make religious fundamentalists more peace-loving: The certainty of bodily demise, after all, is the one thing we all have in common. People reminded of mortality are also more likely to decide to exercise, to smoke less, and to use sunscreen more diligently. The "dance with death,” one review of the literature concludes, “can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life. The conscious awareness of mortality can motivate people to enhance their physical health… [it can] build positive relationships with friends, family and loved ones … and can foster certain self-enriching behaviors, such as creative expression or the exploration of novelty."

Which brings us back to Halloween. There are already signs of a resurgence in the tradition of memento mori: the British-based Death Cafe, for example, organizes gatherings where “people come together in a relaxed and safe setting to discuss death, drink tea, and eat delicious cake.” (They’re coming to America, too: A Columbus, Ohio Death Cafe is scheduled for next month.) Apps for your iPad or Android device promise to calculate your likely date of death, then provide a salutary countdown.

But collective annual Halloween rituals more closely resembling the Day of the Dead would make a bigger difference. There’s no need to spurn the pumpkin-carving or the zombie costumes. But wouldn’t multigenerational graveyard parties provide a meaningful complement to that? My local coffee shop is currently offering “spooky cupcakes,” two varieties of Halloween pastry, and pumpkin-flavored ice cream. Couldn’t it also become a Death Cafe for the night? Most children, one suspects, would welcome these additions to the festivities. It’s we adults who tend to respond to the morbid by trying to ignore it at all costs—in most parts of the world, anyway. “The word ‘death’ is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips,” writes the celebrated Mexican essayist Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude. But “the Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it.” And apparently they’re doing something right: International happiness surveys keep on putting Mexico near the top.

Becker, the great scholar of death-denial, had to face the full facts of his own mortality far too early: He died of cancer at the age of 49, in 1974, a year after The Denial of Death was published. His friend, the author and philosopher Sam Keen, later wrote of Becker's legacy: “Gradually, reluctantly, we are beginning to acknowledge that the bitter medicine he prescribes—contemplation of the horror of our own death—is, paradoxically, the tincture that adds sweetness to mortality.” It’s a sweetness far richer and deeper than the high-fructose corn syrup in a fistful of bright-orange candy. Perhaps it’s time we developed a taste for it.

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, which will be published Nov. 13. He writes for the Guardian. Follow him on Twitter.

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