November 2, 2018

Halloween spirit peaks during manic phase of 15-year cultural excitement cycle

Leading up to Halloween, I used to write an annual mini-series of posts on the social rituals surrounding the holiday, and how they've changed over time, from the perspective of both an observer and a participant.

Clearly I did not feel like it this year -- observing or participating -- then I realized I haven't felt like it in awhile. Going back through my archive, I notice that those posts are almost all from the manic phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, the first half of the 2010s. These links are collected in an appendix.

I don't think this personal experience is idiosyncratic, since I'm an eager participant in Halloween when everyone else is -- so if I'm not, likely they are not either. And I've been an informal cultural chronicler for my adult life, whether or not I like the way things are heading at the moment. If there were still as much excitement surrounding Halloween in 2018 as there was in 2012, I would sense it.

Beyond these personal observations, during the most recent manic phase, Hollywood re-released Ghostbusters into theaters nearly every year leading up to Halloween, to help get people in the mood. Even better, at least when I caught it, they were projecting film instead of digital, as part of the general interest in all things vintage during that phase. The movie had lain dormant since its original release in another manic phase (1984), and has not been re-released during Halloween season since 2014, as we've entered the vulnerable refractory phase.

Before the early 2010s, I was also really into Halloween during the second half of the '90s, during another manic phase. I was in high school, too old to trick-or-treat, but still felt excited to participate in the traditions all the same. To get ready for handing out candy, I used to dress up in face paint or full-head masks that I made, in black and white and as close to Expressionist in style as a high schooler could manage. Then I would play whatever spooky-sounding music I was into at the time (like the Residents) out of the windows, and generally try to create a playful haunted house atmosphere so that the kids would not feel cheated on the only holiday meant for them.

This period of participation began in either '94 or '95, when my best friend and I spent Halloween pretending to be leaf-stuffed dummies on his front lawn, with a "help yourself" bowl of candy next to us. As the kids came up to get their treats, we'd rise out of our chairs to give them a good spook -- assuming their helicopter parents had not ruined the surprise already by saying, "I think those are kids under there". It was affected and comical, all in good fun, not trying to make them piss their pants.

My participation ended in '99, during my freshman year of college when I wore black tie and a top hat with a plague doctor mask, scaring the Japanese girl in our dorm to death. "Ohhh, I don't like this holiday..."

During the 2000s, though, Halloween was mostly a joke, as highlighted in the 2004 movie Mean Girls -- no longer an occasion for dressing up as something out of the ordinary and scary, but just getting a free pass to dress like an ordinary sexualized attention whore at a party. Or to dress up as a self-aware topical reference. People were being their ordinary selves (ironic hipster, pseudo-slut), not changing roles as part of a temporary carnivalesque inversion.

As for the last vulnerable and warm-up phases of the cycle before the 2000s -- the second half of the '80s and first half of the '90s -- I was too young to know whether the teenagers and young adults were more excited or less excited for Halloween than they were during the previous manic phase of the early '80s. Taking hints from pop culture portrayals, there's only one big movie outside the genre of horror / occult to feature Halloween -- The Karate Kid from '84 has a fairly long scene set at a costumed dance for the high schoolers. Must have been a pretty big deal during the new wave age.

I don't think average teenagers and young adults were as into the holiday during the late '80s and early '90s as they were back then. Toward the end of the restless warm-up phase, in '94, My So-Called Life devoted an entire episode to Halloween, focusing on its carnivalesque spirit. Watch it here. It's one of the best portrayals of the holiday's social rituals, and in a sympathetic, appreciative tone -- not overdone and fanboy-ish, nor cynical and dismissive. But that was more of a cult hit, ahead of the curve that would see popular fascination with Halloween revive during the second half of the decade.

Before the '80s, Halloween was not really a holiday for teenagers and young adults, so it's hard to tell one way or the other how much they got into the spirit across the three phases of the excitement cycle before the early '80s manic phase. I assume they were warming up to it in the late '70s restless phase, especially in the context of disco, and not in the mood at all during the refractory phase of the early '70s. If there were another period where they really resonated with it, it would have been the manic late '60s, but that was back when it was still a holiday strictly for children.

Without getting into a whole separate post about why these rituals peak during the manic phase of the excitement cycle, it seems pretty straightforward, and would seem to generalize to other holiday rituals as well, such as Christmas.

During the vulnerable refractory phase, people cannot tolerate social-cultural stimulation, and these big spectacle-sized rituals like Halloween are too much for them. It feels almost oppressive, and they prefer something low-key, if at all. As their energy levels are restored to baseline again, they're open to the spectacle-level rituals, some are experimenting with them, but they haven't really caught on broadly either. During the manic phase, these spectacles are just one of the many outlets that their all-purpose excitation is channeled into.

Appendix: Earlier posts on Halloween's social rituals

1. Schools using diversity sensitivity as an excuse to ban Halloween costumes altogether.

2. Review of scary pop culture to get your children, nieces, and nephews into the proper mood.

3. Decline of trick-or-treating phenomenon.

4. Trick-or-treating as a measure of communal cohesion.

5. Halloween's shift from communal rite of rebellion to egocentric business as usual.

6. Changes in the carnivalesque nature of Halloween, especially the shift of the main celebration to "the Saturday night before Halloween" so as to not disrupt the work week.

7. Turning Halloween into an individual status contest.

8. Grab bag of topics, including the conservative drive to banish Halloween as pagan, Satanic, etc., without wanting to replace it with something else / better.

9. Another grab bag, including the prolonging of the Halloween season to the entire month of October, preventing any spike of excitement by the time it eventually arrives, due to 30 days of habituation. (Just like Christmas.)

10. Only incidentally about trick-or-treating, but an excuse to show how romantic the landscapes used to look back in the '80s when the society had not yet come down with collective OCD, and did not rake their leaves, letting them blanket the ground.


  1. Yes, the last time I had Thanksgiving with my extended family was November of 2012. Holidays do seem to fade during the vulnerable period, and become more celebrated during the manic period.

  2. Related: Black Friday hit its peak during the manic phase of the early 2010s. People still go, but it's not the great big crazy adrenaline-rush spectacle that it was back then.

    That was another public social ritual I wrote about every year while it was popular:

    I noted the end of its spectacle status right as the manic phase was wrapping up, at the end of 2014, when the sales began to extend earlier and earlier before Black Friday proper:

    "Black Friday, as a one-day-only concentrated spectacle, seems to be winding down. By all indicators — sales figures, advertising hype, live-tweeting the most fucked-up incidents around the country — the day was much more quiet, tame, and boring this year...

    "This marks the passing of yet another holiday ritual from a concentrated and intense manner of celebration (if you can call it that in this case), into a drawn-out and diluted manner. This keeps it from feeling like a memorable experience, and therefore weakens the power of the holiday to bond folks together...

    "Black Friday was already a disgusting debasement of Thanksgiving rituals, but at least it tried to preserve the manner of concentrated group celebration. Hard to pull off when it's a melee of every shopper for themselves, but it was still common for families to go shopping as a group (perhaps even camp out in line as a group), and to feel the excitement of sharing the same heart-racing experience as the other deal-grabbers, albeit the thrill shared among self-centered looters rather than other-centered worshipers."

  3. Hey, I emailed links to your excitation theory to Alan Cross. I am really sorry if this was the wrong thing to do, but he sent me this in response:

    "Love this! Would you like to create a story for a post on by website? I’d be happy to push out your theory."

    His email is:


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