But experts say that costumes, neighbourhood displays and Halloween marketing in general have evolved from the love of a good-natured scare to a fascination with gore, from buckets of blood to depictions of dismemberment and even cannibalism.
“When you go to the costume stores, there is a level of graphicness that wasn’t there before,” says Mike Mulvey, a marketing professor at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.
A number of viral stories in the lead-up to Oct. 31 demonstrate this affinity for Halloween horror. A family in Mustang, Okla., made news for a driveway display that suggested the aftermath of an execution-style killing. The two blood-spattered human bodies looked so real they prompted neighbours to call police.
Back in September, many social media users raised concern over the fact that Walmart, Sears and Amazon.com were selling a latex replica of a skinned, demonic-looking dog. The product description referred to the item as “bloody road kill.”
While Halloween is rooted in the macabre, the emphasis on gore is a relatively recent phenomenon, says Lesley Pratt Bannatyne, author of Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America's Fright Night.
There is some debate about its exact origins, but Halloween is thought to have originated in pagan festivals from Scotland and Ireland. Bannatyne says it took off in North America in the 1820s; after the carnage of the American Civil War, people found some comfort in tales of the supernatural.
Halloween soon became an annual civic occasion, and the way it is now celebrated reflects broader social trends.
“It’s changed with the general culture, because you can’t take Halloween out of the culture — it expresses it,” says Bannatyne.
Fifty years ago, she says, Halloween was almost exclusively geared towards children, and was seen as an opportunity to wear aspirational outfits — hence the propensity for ghosts and mummies, but also astronauts, gunslingers, superheroes and the like.
“It was spooky, maybe eerie, but most of all, it was a time to dress up as who you wanted to be or disguise yourself in some way,” says Bannatyne.
She says the tenor of Halloween changed with a seemingly unrelated event in the movie industry in 1968 – namely, the cancelling of Hollywood’s production code, a studio protocol that had inhibited the use of obscene imagery in film since 1930.
The lifting of the code resulted in the rise of more graphic films, most notably horror movies. The tipping point, however, was the release in 1978 of John Carpenter’s film Halloween, about a masked murderer who stalks the denizens of a small U.S. town.
It was the first time that Halloween had been directly equated with horror cinema, says Bannatyne, and the association has stuck ever since.
“After that, the floodgates opened, and there were serial killers and bloody masks and a whole new costuming and haunted attraction industry that followed the horror movies a little bit more closely,” she says.
Sheila Woody, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, says that Halloween will always be about eliciting scares.
“A lot of people really like the arousal and edge of fear and that’s why we have amusement parks and scary movies and they’re successful. When there’s not objective danger, but yet your senses are telling you there is danger, if your brain is telling you it’s safe, it’s kind of fun,” she says.
Furthermore, she says, Halloween thrill seekers always look for novel and more extreme ways to get their kicks.
Real-world violence plays a part
Mike Mulvey says the attraction to gore has been sustained in recent years by the popularity of zombie films and TV shows, including the AMC series The Walking Dead, as well as other explicitly violent entertainment, such as the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones.
While horror entertainment seems to drive the fascination with bloody imagery, Bannatyne says the trend also reflects a general desensitization to violence in light of post-9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, footage of which can be readily viewed on the internet.
“After [allegations of torture] and a number of really ugly wars, I think the Halloween industry recognizes that the modern monster is human, and what we do to each other is visually stimulating… in Halloween marketing,” she says.
The fascination with gore is unlikely to subside, but there seem to be some limits to what society at large will accept. Bannatyne says that in the years immediately after 9/11, the Halloween industry on the whole backed away from bloody props and costumes. Although by 2008, she says, gore paraphernalia was back in a big way.
More recently, public outcry and criticism from animal-rights activists over the bloody demon dog eventually prompted Walmart, Sears and Amazon.com to pull the item from their shelves.
“There’s always going to be limits where the majority have consensus, but there’s always going to be people who push the boundaries and move the boundaries of good taste,” says Mulvey.
Halloween has evolved like all other big celebrations, says Mulvey, who likens the increasingly graphic nature of Halloween to the “hyper-commercialized” character of the holiday season.
You’ve got “inflatable Grinches going down chimneys and stuff, which isn’t exactly part of the Christmas mythology, once upon a time,” Mulvey says.
“And there’s all the lights. I don’t remember [Jesus’] manger being all lit up and decked out with LED lights that go in sequence and different tones and colours — although I’m sure Joseph would have been impressed.”Suggest a correction