Like many holidays, Halloween can be a triggering time for survivors. This holiday also poses unique risks and barriers when it comes to preventing sexual violence. This isn’t just due to the fact that Halloween parties and gatherings may create environments with increased rates of sexual assaults and harassment, but it is also due to trauma triggers such as dark lighting, fearful screams, obscuring masks, and graphic and violent imagery that are hallmarks of this time of year. It’s important to recognize every survivor has a different relationship with the celebration of Halloween; for some, it can even be a favorite time of year they look forward to, while for others, it may be difficult. In this blog, we explore why Halloween can be so complicated and why it's important to normalize setting boundaries around this holiday, like any other time of year, that may be triggering.
Risks and Victim-Blaming Around Halloween
Although there are unclear statistics regarding rates of sexual assault during Halloween, what we do know is that the holiday creates a perfect storm for many factors that increase the risk of sexual violence. Research shows that most sexual assaults take place between 6pm and 6am, and especially so when alcohol is involved. As Halloween is generally celebrated as a night-time event, which may include parties and drinking, the environment presents an above-average risk.
During a time of year when fear is considered a thrill, it can also be difficult to gauge our internal perceptions of danger. For example, someone knocking on your door late at night might normally seem to be cause for concern, but during Halloween, for some this is part of the tradition. The norms of this holiday, to expect the unexpected, can confuse our perceptions and intuition in ways that feel unsafe.
The novelty and anonymity of costumes and masks can be weaponized by people who commit sexual harassment and assault as cover for abusive behavior. Since the tradition of dressing up is part of the holiday, extra emphasis is placed on what people wear, which commonly leads to slut shaming and victim-blaming. This misplaced blame on clothing is even undertaken by courts, law enforcement, and society at large, and this victim-blaming only contributes to the prevalence of sexual violence by setting harmful social precedents and excusing people who commit harm. As Lily Puckett of Teen Vogue writes, “A costume, like any other form of clothing, is not an invitation to be bothered or harassed — not even when that costume represents something [that to] society seems ‘unacceptable’ on the other 364 days of the year. If someone’s wearing lingerie with bunny ears a la Mean Girls, that’s their right, and has literally nothing to do with anyone else.”
The Re-Traumatizing Effect of Fear
In addition to costumes, we often like to be scared or have fun scaring others during the spooky season. What is important to understand is that the fun of being scared can have a different effect on people who have had terrifying experiences they didn’t choose to have. The brain cannot distinguish between real or simulated threats. Even if a person knows that the movie they are watching or a haunted house they are visiting isn’t real, the brain can still be negatively impacted. This is especially true for children. In fact, research suggests viewing films like IT at a young age could explain why so many people have a visceral fear of clowns.
Horror movies are designed to exploit our fear sensor and make us feel unsettled, jumpy, and hyperalert. This is of course the point; however, it can have unintended consequences for survivors. Horror films commonly depict extreme violence – specifically against women. Many of the classic horror movie scenes have undertones of sexual violence, which are equally triggering. Scary imagery can also be psychologically suggestive and leave survivors with unwanted thoughts or negative emotions which rob them of feeling comfortable and safe.
Some important reminders during Halloween:
- Don’t feel pressured to engage in anything you aren’t truly comfortable with. An invitation to a haunted house with friends might bring along a sense of social pressure to attend, but it’s absolutely okay to decline if you have any concerns or anticipate it may be an unpleasant experience. Activities like apple picking, hayrides, and pumpkin patches can be great alternatives.
- You do not have to open your door for anyone at any time — even trick-or-treaters. If you feel triggered or if you experience fear or hyper-alertness, consider leaving a bowl of candy outside with a note that says “please do not knock.” Or simply turn off your porch lights, as choosing to not participate is completely acceptable. Halloween is meant to be fun for everyone — if it creates stress, fear, or anxiety, you have the right to opt out.
- You do not have to wear a costume if you don’t want to. Don’t feel pressure to dress any certain way for fear of being regarded as a “poor sport” or a non-participant.
- Pay attention to your body, mind, and emotions — if you notice yourself feeling anxiety watching a scary movie, honor your feelings and practice self-care.
- Practicing bystander intervention is an impactful way to make the holiday safe for everyone. Here are some great resources on how to do so.
- Enjoy Halloween during the daytime if night activities feel unsafe.
- Connect with others and voice your needs. Let others know if you do not want to be scared “for fun,” and do not prank or frighten others without their consent.
- Every person has a different threshold for fear and comfort with spookiness. Children are particularly vulnerable to feeling pressured to engage in Halloween activities that they might actually be afraid of (haunted houses, overly scary decorations, etc.). Teach them to honor their boundaries. Don’t make children knock on a door they are uncomfortable approaching or watch movies that may be frightening.
- Be mindful of other cultural practices. Some people honor their deceased loved ones during Day of the Dead. Educate yourself and remember to be respectful.
- Educate yourself on cultural appropriation before choosing a Halloween costume.
- Bad, disrespectful, illegal, or harassing behaviors are not less harmful simply because it’s Halloween. As the University of Colorado notes, “Halloween is not an excuse to grab someone’s body or engage in sexual activity without their consent. Consent is a clear, sober yes. “Slow down,” “I’m not sure,” “we should wait” is not consent. Halloween is not an excuse to engage in street harassment, such as making sexual, racial, or harassing comments to someone. (Here’s a checklist about costume choices, too.) Halloween is not an excuse to act without a filter and consideration of others, such as vandalizing property that is not yours, or getting in a fight.”
For a list of practical Halloween safety tips, visit the National Safety Council’s “Simple Steps for an Extra Safe Halloween”.