Trick or Traif? Halloween and Purim compared

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By Arlene and Joel Moskowitz

LA JOLLA, California — This time of the year, in conjunction with seasonal holidays, San Diegans have the opportunity to ‘enjoy’ The Del Mar Fairgrounds Scream Zone: This authors will attempt to explore some of the religious and psychodynamic concerns which draw to and cause some to avoid these thrill experiences. Why do some Jewish people shun this Halloween event? Why do people seek experiences which scare?

One would think that the news is scary enough. Why then is the popularity of Halloween increasing. For members of the Jewish faith celebration of Halloween is contraindicated. Yet many Jews rationalize that Halloween is a secular fun time. And, some rationalize, isn’t Purim similar? Both ‘holidays’ involve dressing in costumes and also lots of candy. Many do not know the origins of Halloween and Purim and how disparate they are. Halloween has a pagan history; Celtic aspects; and Catholic identity.

Ancient Druids greeted the harvest season with lighting bonfires to ward off evil spirits. Celt culture thought this time was propitious to use magic to examine the future. The Torah expressly forbids magic with the exception of conjuring whose purpose is to entertain. I have written that a psychological purpose of conjuring is to identify with the infant whose mental ‘belief’ is that his/her wish makes magic happen. Especially is this so with a parent who is sensitive to the subtle signs of a newborn cry or attitude. The action of campaigning for candy is in the context of ‘trick of treat’. Also not a desirable behavior to teach children. Judaism actually forbids this. The candy which children enjoy at Purim is not a reward for not doing evil. Rather it is a celebration of the sweet outcome of a terrible time in persecution of Jews.

Even the purpose of costuming is diametrically different in Halloween and Purim. Ghosts, death images, frightening masks are themes in Halloween. Purim’s costumes are pretty, like Esther. Unmasking identity is the story of Esther disclosing she was Jewish. Unmasking evil in the case of Haman’s intent.

So why are scary rides popular with Jews and non-Jews? Psychological theories suggest that confronting and overcoming fright is satisfying. Being in a setting which scares you, while in the back of your mind you ‘know’ that it is just play, can be reassuring. That fascination with tragedy was debated in classical Hellenic times. Plato was against. He felt it was unnecessary and unhealthy to stir up negative emotions. Aristotle countered. His idea was that catharsis had value. The vicarious identification with death simulation increased one’s coping potential.

Horror movies, especially those which feature diabolical destructive remorseless actors, human or extraterrestrial, can be informative. They relate that humans or aliens totally without conscience are an aspect of life; as is meaningless waste of life. But how is a scary five-minute ride in a theme park, enlightening or, even, maturing?

Yet, if there wasn’t a demand, we wouldn’t have the Del Mar Scream Zone with its attendant popularity. It serves a public need. All thinking humans live with denial of death. Religious beliefs in an afterlife assuages, to the intensity of the devotion, that death is permanent and nothing. Instead, an afterlife populated with lost loved ones and reward is promising. Societies through the ages have attempted to grapple with this existential unknown.

In a sense, the Del Mar Fair management are doing a human service by offering their annual Scream Zone. It may be considered to be therapeutic (if you have a prescription from your physician, you might submit it to Blue Cross for payment).

Seriously, the Scream Zone affords a community theatrical experience where the customer is the actor. He/she in an industrially safe (even, in part, ADA approved), amusement park car along with friends and relatives, where the participant can be thrilled, frightened, laugh, be amazed and escape unscathed.

The show is leavened with access to spirits, those whom over 21, can ingest, and delectables which if eaten in quantity might truly damage your health with ensuing repercussions. As a physician, Joel can readily prescribe the Del Mar Scream Zone for those with sturdy cardiovascular systems, an intact musculoskeletal system, and a desire to exercise their autonomic system – fright/flight response. It is recommended that there is no shame to pick and choose which rides will be stimulating, and not be overwhelming. Wise humans know their body.

For an entertaining, emotion stirring, fun experience, the Del Mar Scream Zone is prescribed (with the caveats noted above). The technology is magical; management has carefully put in safety features; you have to bring your own laughter.

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Joel and Arlene Moskowitz are freelance writers based in La Jolla. They may be reached at [email protected]

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