What possesses us to dedicate more time, money, and creative energy to the rituals of Halloween than to, say, finally taking that watercolors class or mastering chess? Is it the permission to consume fistfuls of candy guilt-free?An excuse to break loose from our self-imposed fashion constraints? Or a chance to trade humdrum daily routines in favor of something more bewitching? 

To better understand the holiday’s broad appeal, NYU News spoke with four faculty members with expertise in otherworldly matters, from the history of witchcraft to the art of horror movie makeup. We asked each professor for their take on why we all like being a little scared—and for some surprising findings from their hair-raising fields of study. 

drawing of a cauldron

Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak

Professor of history, FAS; teaches “The World of Medieval Magic”

illustration of three witches

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "The witches of Macbeth" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 28, 2019.

The Draw: Magic Offers Answers

“Magic in the Middle Ages was a domain that was very much discussed by theologians, inquisitors, schoolmen, and lawyers. Magical thinking reflects an understanding that there are forces that remain unknown and that call for discovery. In the Middle Ages, magic became very serious, because it was a way to explore the forces of nature and the nature of the supernatural. For instance, by the 12th century, magic became two things. One, witchcraft, was considered demonic and was understood to be inspired by Satan. The second, natural magic, consisted in trying to understand the occult powers of herbs, of stars, of trees— not to worship them, but rather to access those forces. Magic was a vibrant form of interaction with nature and with classical knowledge, and a communal culture seeking to deal with the world, a world that seemed awesome and filled with uncontrollable wonders.”

Bet You Didn’t Know: Partying with the Dead Has a Long History

“Halloween, a medieval invention possibly with roots in ancient Celtic paganism, was during the Middle Ages quite close to what it would become in the modern holiday. The world of the dead and living became one, and everything is topsy-turvy for one night. It was a moment of carnival and charivari—of role shifting and crossdressing—before entering the darkness of winter. What I find most interesting is that the momentary cohabitation with the dead could be festive. The dead were expected to visit, so food was left at the door for them. Halloween was reintroduced in the U.S. in the 19th century, late [compared to Europe] because the early settlers of New England, the Puritans, would not practice a holiday so strongly associated with the Church.”

drawing of a knife with blood

Robert Benevides

Distinguished teacher and area head of special fx makeup, Tisch

student in full zombie makeup

Student in zombie makeup by Robert Benevides, from a demonstration in 2016

The Draw: Horror Can Be Therapeutic

“Looking into the darkness but in a safe way is kind of a healthy thing to do. It’s like roller coasters. It's a controlled scare that people know they're going to survive but they can still kind of embrace it. When people go to haunted houses and scream or get scared, that’s kind of a nice release from their stresses.”

Bet You Didn’t Know: Special Effects Are Frightfully Complex

“There are so many steps and so many art forms that you have to learn in order to create these characters or effects. There’s sculpting, there's painting, and there's also the technical aspects of making molds and working with materials—a kind of a chemistry involved in getting stuff to set up properly. We use a lot of silicones and they can be temperamental if you don't measure them right or mix them properly. Time is a big factor—students will say, 'I’m shooting in a week and I need this replica hand!' If people don't have patience they're not going to be too great at this.”

drawing of a coffin

Angela Zito

Associate professor of anthropology and director of religious studies, FAS; teaches “Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters

Bela Lugosi in Dracula

Bela Lugosa in "Dracula," 1931

The Draw: People Are Dying to Live Forever

“The zombie is definitely a whole resurrection trope, but vampires are also about fear of death and longing for immortality. We desire those things and yet when we materialize them as vampires or zombies, we're actually afraid of them. Over [the past] 100 hundred years, as attitudes towards sexuality have changed, vampires have lost the fearful edge and have become celebrated. They have been transformed into an object of beloved longing, from the fearsomeness of Dracula to the gorgeous love story of Twilight. But they have been replaced in our popular imagination by a genuine monster, which is the zombie. There’s nothing nice about zombies.”

Bet You Didn’t Know: Monsters Shine a Light Into Our Psyches

“My students come in and expect that this is going to be an extension of entertainment. But it turns out that we have extremely serious discussions about our own psychic lives and about the world around us. A course like this is more about what you find out about yourself than strange facts about vampires and zombies. My students are surprised by how they end up using these objects of fantasy to think about themselves and their own social lives.”

drawing of stars and moon

Jesse Bransford

Clinical associate professor of visual arts and department chair of art and art professions, Steinhardt; co-organizer of the biennial Occult Humanities Conference


The Draw: Magic and Nature are Intertwined

“My artwork has been built around notions of belief systems. For about four years, I focused pretty specifically on the iconography built out of the Icelandic folk magic tradition. Iceland is an interesting place. There are less than half a million people there, and when asked, more than half of the Icelandic population believes in the fairy world. That may be because the landscape in Iceland is very specific—a lot of it is built out of volcanic scree, and the folk traditions around these rocks are that they were fairy villages.

“When you look at traditional magic practices that have persisted, they are always rooted in a nature worship matrix. That seems like it could be a way forward in our moment, when we’re looking to regain some sort of meaningful non-destructive interaction with the natural world.”

Bet You Didn’t Know: Men Were Hunted Too

“When we say the word witchcraft, we tend to think of women. That has to do with the European history of witchcraft, how it was persecuted, and who it targeted. But the witch trials in Iceland were very late—it was one of the last countries that the wave swept through. And one interesting detail is that almost all of the witches that were burned during Iceland's witch trials were men.”