The science of chills and thrills

JMU researcher’s career revolves around Halloween themes

JMU Headlines

by Ginny Cramer


Halloween is next week and James Madison University professor Lindsey Harvell-Bowman typically celebrates like many others, by dressing up and spending time with friends. This year she hosted a popcorn contest and watched the film Hocus Pocus 2 to get into the spooky spirit.

Unlike many people, however, Harvell-Bowman won't stop thinking about some of the dark themes around Halloween, like death and the afterlife, come Nov. 1. As the director of the Terror Management Lab at JMU, she spends her whole year researching fear, death and how to create meaning in life. 

With that expertise, Harvell-Bowman shares why people love Halloween and its connection to the fear of death.

Why do people like to scare themselves? 

​I think it has a lot to do with the thrill of it. There are many individuals that really enjoy the adrenaline that accompanies the scare. And, when we get scared, it is, either consciously or unconsciously, reminding us of surviving death. So, the thrill of that is a natural anxiety buffer to death. 

Zombies, ghosts and haunted houses — how do these Halloween tropes help address the idea of life after death? 

With haunted houses, it's all about the thrill of being scared and the thrill one gets from surviving that. Zombies and Ghosts remind us that there is life after death, and consequently that helps our fear of death lessen. Death is not the end; you can live on in various states. 

Why are people scared of death? 

We all have a desire to survive. If we didn't, we wouldn't be here right now. So we know we will die and there is nothing we can do about it. And to make things worse, we don't know the time and place and method. It has the ability to produce debilitating terror. 

What role do holidays like Halloween or Día de los Muertos play in helping people confront death anxiety?  

I'm not sure that these holidays help combat anxiety, but what they do is normalize talking about death — not so much with Halloween, but definitely with Día de los Muertos. This is one of my favorite holidays, actually. It's a celebration of death — the one time of the year where your ancestors can come back. Not only is this an incredibly special and healthy way to think about death, it teaches us about the afterlife and consequently helps us feel better about death. 

Are there ways people can manage their fear of death?  

Yes, I think we saw that with COVID. When death was constant and very real, we saw polarization of political attitudes and a very unhealthy "us vs. them" mentality. According to Terror Management Theory, there are three ways we typically manage our death anxiety. First, adherence to a cultural worldview, so belonging to a culture (e.g., religion, political party, American, etc.). Second, belief that you are a good example of that culture (self-esteem), and third, the management of close relationships.



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Published: Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2024

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