Last year I saw an incident on Halloween that took the fun, spookiness and safety right out of the night for a child who was Trick-or-Treating. With October quickly approaching, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about masklophobia and remind adults that Halloween is for kids too.
The problem with Halloween for some kids (and perhaps adults) is that it can be a time of great excitement yet fear and apprehension. While many begin to look forward to fall and October 31st months in advance (me!) others may be conflicted. The build up to the day for some is thrilling. For others, they feel trepidation as they look forward to Trick-or-Treating but not all of the terrors that may lurk in shadows of that night.
For some kids, there may not be a big difference as to whether a mask is a harmless rainbow unicorn or if it is full of rotting flesh, bones and overall grossness. For them, masklophobia is a very real thing. For those of you who don’t know, masklophobia is the fear of masks but it can be extended to costumes and mascots as well. The diagnosis can be individualized so two people diagnosed with masklophobia will not necessarily be afraid of the same things. One might be terrified of clown masks (aren’t we all?) while others may be fearful of team mascot costumes. This is why you will see some kids terrified of the mall Easter Bunny or a mascot costume at a restaurant. For young children, being afraid of masks can be quite common and something they will grow out of. Children read individual’s faces for cues on personality, behaviors and safety so when a mask is unchanging and an expression frozen, it can be confusing or even petrifying. This fear can take over logical and rational thought so the mask, costume or mascot may seem like a life threatening danger and a response of fight, flight or freeze takes over.
Treatment usually entails Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Bio-feedback and/or Exposure Therapy to name a few. These treatments need to be guided by a licensed mental health therapist and must involve the parent(s). A child is not going to let go of a fear simply because a parent says it is not something to be scared or worried about. Forcing a child to “face their fears” in a non-therapeutic way can actually cause more damage. Laughing at a child when they are terrified by a team mascot or costume will just demean the child. The therapy is equally important for the parents in order to fully understand the fear.
Some parents begin working with their child in September as soon as stores begin decorating and costume shops start opening. It can be difficult for a child to walk into a store to pick out a much anticipated costume when there are mechanical vampires, witches and goblins moving around and saying scary things right inside the front door. It can take multiple visits to one place before a child can make it through an entire Halloween store without crumbling in fear. A thorough understanding of the freeze, fight or flight response and a great deal of compassion and patience on the part of a parent is essential. This type of exposure therapy should never be done without the guidance of a licensed mental health therapist.
Last year, we went Trick-or Treating in a friend’s neighborhood. There was one house that went all out for Halloween. I mean, it was awesome! You could tell they went to a lot of work! I stood back to watch all the action going on as there were a few people in costumes running around. I saw a mom and daughter standing across the street. I could tell that the girl was terrified by the way she clutched her mom’s hand and partly stood behind her as she watched a person in a giant gorilla costume running around the yard and right up to people to scare them. I watched as he spotted the mother and girl and loped, like a gorilla, across the street where they stood.
The girl jerked her hand free of the mother’s, darted up to the house of the driveway they were standing and pinned herself against the garage door. I saw the mom rush up to the girl and place herself between her daughter and the person in the gorilla costume. I heard her calmly but strongly ask the person, “Please go away, my daughter is frightened!” She said it more than once, each time getting louder. I could hear the girl screaming at the top of her lungs repeatedly until the mother finally yelled for him to go away. I’m assuming it was a male by the size of the costume but I really don’t know. I doubt he could hear her (or I’m hoping so anyway because what type of jerk does that to a kid?) but he could certainly see her body language. The person in the gorilla costume eventually ran back across the street to his next victim. I felt completely shattered for that poor little girl as she walked away sobbing so hard her body shook.
I imagine what started out as a fun night full of promise and treats turned into a nightmare for her. This child was clearly standing across the street, away from the haunted house, at a distance she felt was safe for her to observe. This child who did not want to participate but still became a prop for the costumed gorilla. Sometimes, as adults, we forget that while some like to be scared for fun, others do not, especially children. Some kids may not be keen on the idea of going Trick-or-Treating and as parents; we need to remember that it is absolutely fine to stay indoors with a child on Halloween. There are many other options for Trick-or-Treating now, for example; different organizations hold Trunk-or-Treating during the day and malls will host an opportunity to Trick-or-Treat in the stores.
I know I cannot expect someone to alter their plans for the night, their costumes or their fun because of the possibility that a child might be scared. Like I said, I love all things fall (except the overdone pumpkin spice crap) and Halloween. I do wish that people would not force others into an experience that may be frightening. I do wish adults would pay attention to how a child is reacting and not try to capitalize on his or her fear. I do wish people would know who their audience is going to be and think about what may be age appropriate for a particular situation. It doesn’t take much to be a kind person.
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