Set aside the candy and tequila for a hot second, and Halloween's best attribute becomes more clear: It's our time to reflect on all of the spooky vibes whipping around the world around us.
The paranormal, the unexplained, those times where you walk into your dark apartment and rip off your headphones because you realize you couldn't hear the eerie rustling that's totally probably there—these are the moments where we're reminded of that, as fallible humans, we simply can't know how everything works in the world around us, and not knowing why something weird happened is sometimes kind of scary, right?
Thanks to our innate love of one-upmanship, Halloween has evolved into an institution where people will gladly pay to visit extreme haunted houses and have their own shit scared out of them. That's a curious phenomenon in its own right, but I think it's more instructive to look back at the Halloween you probably remember as a kid. You know, the one where everything was about ghosts.
The idea that ghosts and spirits exist and can control things around us—from more godlike beings controlling the weather to your common poltergeist bumping around in the night—is pretty much as old as culture itself. Really, it doesn't come as much surprise, either: We humans have a healthy tendency towards anthropomorphizing the world around us, and when something weird happens (and how weird is lightning?), it's not too hard to blame it on a spirit.
Such ghostsplaining has produced all kinds of wacky behavior throughout human history. One particularly odd example from ancient history comes from a 1976 American Antiquity paper in which author Robert Hall argues that moats build two millennia ago in the eastern United States were possibly used as water barriers to fend off ghosts.
"Certain enigmatic prehistoric constructions in the eastern United States were possibly designed partly as barriers to restrict the movement of spirits or to protect the enclosed area from unwanted supernatural influences," Hall writes in the preamble. "Ethnographic accounts indicate that in historic times the belief was widely held in the United States that ghosts could not pass through water and that the geometry of a circle was effective in countering magic or supernatural forces."
Now, I know what you're thinking: Water-based spirit fortresses sound like exactly the type of ridiculous idea our uneducated, far-flung ancestors would come up with, probably as they shook their fists at the rain spirits for screwing up their corn crops. But the whole ghost thing gets even weirder when we get into the European Renaissance and beyond.
Take, for example, Swiss Reformed theologian Ludwig Lavater, who spent a few decades in the 16th century writing books about ghosts. (I'm not going to compare him to Stephen King, but if you want to at your next dinner party, go wild.)
Lavater's work found popular success thanks to the spiritual vibes that were in vogue at the time, including Renaissance magic, which I recommend spending an afternoon Googling. A 1596 English translation of his most famous title comes with the type of cumbersome title endemic to the era: Of ghostes and spirites, walking by night: and of straunge noyses, crackes, and sundrie forewarnings: which commonly happen before the death of men: great slaughters, and alterations of kingdoms.
Lavater takes the tone of a debunker, and, given his background, dedicates much of the book to comparing ghost stories to tales in Christian literature. (He also notes in the intro that his friends practically begged him to share his opinions on ghosts, which, come on.) But one thing that's quite fascinating about the text is how Lavater breaks down ghost believers into three groups: crazy people, fearful people, and smart people who can be generally trusted to have actually seen a specter.
Spirits "are seen and heard, and make men afraid in the night season, and in the daytime, by sea and by land, in the fields, woods, and houses," Lavater writes by way of opening the text. (I'm converting 16th century English spellings to the modern equivalent here just for your reading pleasure, but here's the original.)
"And some (chiefly those which hunt after gains, by the souls of dead men) affirm that the most part of such things which are heard or seen, are the souls of dead men," Lavater writes later, "which crave help of them that are living, to be delivered out of the torments of most cruel pain in Purgatory. Many not only of the common sort, but also men of excellent knowledge, do marvell whether there be any spirits or no, and what manner of things they are."
So across two millennia and two continents, we've got evidence of two important points about ghosts: First, not all ghost believers are considered crazy by their contemporaries (people must take your ghost beliefs seriously if you're down to build huge moat projects based on spirits). Second is the very important tradition of ghosts being scary.
I mean, who can blame our predecessors for being scared of ghosts? Are spirits that control the world a thing to be fearful of? Shit yeah. But then why are we so damn entertained by them?
My favorite product of the 18th and 19th century ghost world were the phantasmagoria, or very early theater performances that used state-of-the-art tech like magic lanterns to produce astral projections and other scary imagery. I wrote about them a couple years ago, and what has stuck with me since was the sheer spectacle of the era.
Picture this: You're living in Paris in the late 1700s or early 1800s, and you hear of a performance where a showman promises to conjure spirits. Of course, the show is being held inside of some ancient monastery or some other suitably spooky venue. You arrive with a bunch of other adventurers and, perhaps never even having seen a proper projection before, a bunch of fucking ghosts start zipping around the audience as unsettling music plays.
Sounds terrifying right? Just look at the above 1797 image of phantasmagoria legend Étienne-Gaspard Robert's performance. See the guy in the aisle? He's straight crying his eyes out. (If you're wondering what kind of people would decide to develop the scariest performances in history, one of the men who largely developed the genre, Johann Georg Schröpfer, decided to scare his friends by committing suicide in front of them.)
The phantasmagoria were the progenitors of the modern horror movie, which has evolved far from the spiritual and the mystical imagery we occasionally associate with Halloween. As opposed to Mexico's Día de Muertos, which remains focused on its traditionally spooky vibes as a way to celebrate death and the afterlife—things we have to accept, even if we don't fully understand them—the modern phantasmagoria is all about being as scary as humanly possible. Why do people find it so much fun?
If you've ever found yourself giggling with excitement while all hopped up on adrenaline, you could probably guess that the enjoyment of fear and risk does have a neurochemical component. In 2013, Peter Gwin wrote a fantastic story about risk for National Geographic, and spoke to neuropsychologist David Zald, who's an expert in how the brain responds to risk.
One of the thing Zald and colleagues have found in their research is that a love of risk and impulsivity—two things that are often connected with fear-inducing situations—have neurological links to dopamine production and regulation.
"Think of dopamine like gasoline," Zald told Gwin in 2013. "You combine that with a brain equipped with a lesser ability to put on the brakes than normal, and you get people who push limits."
But the key to enjoyment is also knowing, somewhere inside that brain box of yours, that you're not actually going to die.
I'll be honest, this is not my idea of fun at all.
"To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we're in a safe environment," sociologist and fear expert Dr. Margee Karr told the Atlantic last year. "It's all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space."
Other studies have shown that such fright can be truly enduring—I, for one, still remember being horrified by Resident Evil as a kid—which is partially due to those experiences triggering some of the most innate, primal, and existential chemical responses we have. In other words, part of the reason we love being scared to death is because it triggers in our brains all of the great feelings we get from being alive.
Speaking of biochemistry, let's talk about this haunted microwave here. It's a perfect case study for our ghost obsession: Just listen to how giddy these people are. It's not just from them sticking their hands in a working microwave. (The guy saying "I could feel it running!" is both terrifying and priceless.) You can hear the tinge of wonder and fear in their voices. Sure, they know it's not actually a ghost running their haunted microwave, but wait, what if it is?
It's an experience I know all too well: I once had a microwave that would wake me up in the middle of the night with its incessant beeping, and every time the number 6 would be scrolling across the screen. I mean, I'm pretty sure the button just shorted out occasionally (I was living at the beach at the time, and salt air fucks up electronics) but I won't lie, every time I walked up my stairs to go check on the possessed Chef Mate, I felt just a wee bit scared—and alive.
The Best YouTube Video is an occasional series where Motherboard searches for the best YouTube video ever made, usually on Friday afternoons right before the margarita alarm rings. Previously The Best YouTube Video: Turkish Man Yelling 'Meow' at an Egg.