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The fear effect

This Halloween, beware the scares from above.
bob_berman_2009
Politicians know it. So do pharmaceutical companies. What is “it”? We’re talking about the power of fear to drive human behavior.

Some fears are common but elicit little sympathy, like coulrophobia (fear of clowns), which is exploited in horror movies. Others are rare, like turophobia (fear of cheese).

In many cases, being scared is simply an accepted part of life, like when kids terrorize their younger siblings. That’s so traditional that each generation takes pride in dreaming up new ways to do it.

Most cultures have some holiday or tradition where scaring people — even total strangers — is sanctioned. Around here, that scary celebration is Halloween. In cities, where omnipresent streetlights eliminate the fear-of-darkness factor, the sky plays a negligible role. But in rural regions, yon inconstant Moon greatly changes the game from year to year.

Halloween is supposed to be scary. And 2018 is a very scary Halloween.

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The Pleiades star cluster has long been associated with catastrophe. This infrared image, colored to show light at longer wavelengths as red, lends the familiar sight a more sinister look.
NASA/JPL-Caltech
First of all, the Moon will be totally absent, so it’ll be maximally dark. The Moon won’t rise until after midnight, after most festivities are long over. 

The Moon’s absence is important because fear of darkness is a primal phobia, even if some surveys say it’s topped nowadays by the fear of spiders. Moreover, darkness takes several forms. This time of year finds the sunset getting rapidly earlier. The loss of solar energy causes food production to shut down entirely, which has produced a sense of dread since time began. While this month of harvest, canning, and preserving still offered lots to eat, it’s also when communities used to wonder what kind of winter lay ahead, and whether they’d survive the coming hardship.

Trees are suddenly barren. The greenery is gone. Birds have already headed south. Bears are eating everything in sight and will soon hibernate. The rats are deserting nature’s sinking ship. It was in this disconcerting natural setting that Halloween was created, as pagan festivals merged with the Christian feast of Allhallowtide, in which the faithful were supposed to remember the dead.

Remember the dead? Just when nights are getting cold, frost is killing our final veggies, and flowers are vanishing along with pretty colors and nice fragrances? Depressing stuff. Couldn’t they have diluted the morbid “remember the dead” theme and moved it to coincide with Fourth of July barbecues and beach picnics? Why hold it just when we’re dealing with midterms and dead roses?

It’s actually not all doom and gloom. A happier, light-based influence is the clock-changing ritual. Until 2007, clocks fell back to standard time in late October before Halloween, which made darkness descend before trick-or-treat festivities were complete. But the switch to the first weekend in November means it’s still light until 6 or 6:30 P.M.

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Mars is a scary place — if you read science fiction, that is. This crescent shot shows the Red Planet largely in shadow, but the nearby world will shine brightly this Halloween.
Kevin Gill
So much for Spook Night’s more obvious aspects. Now for the stuff known mainly by astronomers, which the mass media may or may not latch onto and publicize. 

We already cited the Moon’s 2018 pre-midnight absence as Scare Factor One. Scare Factor Two is Mars. At 8 P.M., the typical peak of festivities, Mars is the brightest “star” in the whole sky. It’s also then prominently due south on the meridian. Its distinct ruddy color has always conjured images of fire and blood, a happy item for no culture. Sitting in Capricornus places Mars only about one-third of the way up in the sky, which will make it eye-catching, since people tend not to crane their necks and notice overhead objects.

Mars has got a sinister rep, of course. Sci-fi books and films from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds onward have made the Red Planet the home of the Bad Guys, whether green-colored thugs in the John Carter books or obnoxious martian transplants in Total Recall. And the ominous world dominates the sky on Halloween.

Those with more classical sensibilities can look to the east at that same early hour of 8 P.M. and see the Pleiades rising. Though a gorgeous sight in binoculars, the blue star cluster had a sinister reputation for centuries — Scare Factor Three. Ceremonies that commemorated loss of life and catastrophe were focused on the Pleiades, along with the sad legend of “the lost Pleiad,” which explains why only six of the seven stars are easily visible to the naked eye. Some historians speculate that the Pleiades might have been prominent when a volcano devastated the island of Thera (present-day Santorini) in the Aegean Sea in 1646 B.C., wiping out the advanced Minoan civilization on nearby Crete and perhaps giving rise to endless myths of Atlantis and lost civilizations.

And finally, if you then let each sporadic meteor remind you of the historic big ones that delivered mass extinctions, you’ll find plenty in the sky to fear. That’s Scare Factor Four. 

Perfect. You’ll be in sync with Halloween.

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