For People Like Me, The Halloween Season Is Physically Painful

By CC Hart

As a mirror-sensory synaesthete, my aversion to Halloween is visceral.

I can’t pinpoint the precise year my discomfort with Halloween took hold, but it feels inextricably tied to my Gen-X childhood, the rise of pop culture, and a shift in the aesthetics of fright.

Whatever, the reason, October 31 — once my favorite day — is now a day I dread.

In the early 1970s, eerie and creepy seemed quite enough to provoke a sense of fear; the amorphous drapings and dayglo acetate masks that transformed me into a witch and my older sister into a scarlet devil were plenty terrifying. But costume technologies were rapidly advancing at that time; the thin and brittle painted plastic masks that had long been a staple of Halloween revelry were quickly being replaced by foam latex. These new masks moved with the wearer and had a realistic, sculptural quality, a hallmark of their origin in the Hollywood film industry and make-up artists such as John Chambers and Rick Baker.

The same special effects that fostered the menacing simians in Planet of the Apes and the otherworldly aliens in Star Wars lent an accessible and anthropomorphic aspect of the grotesque to dime-store disguises. Mass produced and not terribly expensive, these new life-like masks were notably realistic, and launched a horde of hideous rotten-fleshed zombies and head-wounded monsters who tromped through suburbia each All Hallows Eve.

Somewhere in between the denouement of percale sheet ghosts and the rise of the realistically scary, spooky got trumped by gruesome — and I lost my most favored holiday.

There’s a very tangible reason for my visceral aversion to Halloween. I’m a mirror-sensory synaesthete; my vision, my mirror neurons, and my dermatomes are interlinked in an unholy trinity of perception. What I see with my eyes gets translated into sensation on my skin. This is particularly true when I’m looking at another human, whether that person is directly in front of me, depicted in a still image, or represented on a screen. I’m particularly sensitized to injuries; when I witness wounds, whether real or fictitious, I feel lightning bolt shocks of pain that begin at my hips and zip down to my heels, following the innervation path of the cutaneous receptors in my legs.

Like other synaesthetes, I’ve experienced conflated sensations for as long as I can remember. And, while I rationally understand that I have spatial boundaries containing my body and I am not physically fused to anyone else, my vision and skin are forever intertwined; they misfire together more swiftly than my intellect can compensate for.

When I witness wounds, whether real or fictitious, I feel lightning bolt shocks of pain.

Approximately 4% of the population has some form of synesthesia, which makes this neurological aberration somewhat rare. But we all have a mirror neuronal system that is dynamic both when we act, and when we observe the actions of other humans.

Some neuroscientists think mirror neurons provide a physiological mechanism by which what we perceive with our eyes gets translated into physical movement. These researchers postulate mirror neurons as an important mechanism for understanding and interpreting the actions of other people, and for learning new skills through mimicry.

Other scientists believe that mirror neurons have an emotional basis and are the neural foundation of the human capacity for empathy. Several experiments using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) have shown that certain brain regions are not only active when we experience emotions such as joy, revulsion, and pain, but also when we see another person experiencing these same feelings.

Still other neuroscientists have put forward the idea that the mirror neuron system is crucial for aesthetic experiences; they argue that embodied and empathetic responses play an important role in interpreting and processing what we see.

Put more succinctly, our thrill-inducing response to Halloween zombies and monsters is predicated on the human mirror-neuron system and our innate capacity to perceive physically in our own bodies what we see in other bodies. We humans are literally built to feel empathy for our species, even if those fellow members of humanity exist in the netherworld of the undead. Even human-like creatures provoke the mirror-neuronal system, something Mary Shelley must have intuited as she wrote her masterpiece Frankenstein.

But, this very human trait of empathy gets amplified through the lens of my mirror-sensory synaesthesia. Like a person who laughs too loudly at a joke, my brain overreacts to a certain type of visual stimuli. When I see missing limbs, torn flesh, and bloody injuries, whether real or make-believe, my mirror neurons go into hyperdrive, sending ripples of pain across my skin in cascading waves that feel akin to an electric shock. It doesn’t seem to matter if these injuries are real or imagined; I respond viscerally and intensely regardless.

For example, I’m intrigued by the premise of Walking Dead, but I’ve never seen the program, because the hyper-vigilance required for me to watch a single episode dissipates any any pleasure I might find. When I look at still images from this program, the high production values and realistic-looking zombies trigger a synaesthetic response that, as with all synaesthetes, is beyond my conscious control. It would be physically painful for me to see the gore and decay that are the hallmarks of the zombie horde; I’d be assaulted not only by a barrage of stinging bolts, but also, if I was more deeply disturbed, the backs of my arms would get zapped as well.

Additionally, I can only watch Game of Thrones in small doses; the gratuitous violence, while fantastical in representation (hot molten gold poured over the skull!) feels real to my hyper-excitable mirror neurons. Witnessing this (fictitious) physical brutality is a shock to my system, not figuratively but literally, in a replicable pattern of fiery bolts that corkscrew from my sacrum to my feet.

This synaesthetic reaction also happens when I see zombies and bloody monsters trundling through my neighborhood in search of treats. The sheer verisimilitude of contemporary costumes, built with malleable materials that amplify movement and allow for a revolting level of physical deformation, represents a constant trigger. I react synaesthetically before I can respond cognitively. While I have no synaesthetic response to generic masquerade disguises or get-ups that portray branded characters, my mirror-sensory pain is the ubiquitous outcome of the increasingly ghoulish imagery come late October.

And this constant stream of overstimulation has made me pretty much hate Halloween.

The sheer verisimilitude of contemporary costumes represents a constant trigger.

Recently, I’ve been able to reclaim the season by not only avoiding the hyper-realistic gore that’s overtaken the holiday, but by reconnecting with the more romantically terrifying imagery that is most interesting to me in the late autumn. Every October, I read a little Gothic horror; this year I’ve chosen Sarah Watters’ chilling novel The Little Stranger. I also like to read the poems of Edgar Allen Poe, a writer who manages to tread the line between the grotesque and the magnetic. I’m equally captivated by the films of Guillermo del Toro, and try to watch at least one of them around Halloween. Although his movies are rife with horrifying images, those triggering scenes are balanced by a dream-worldy delight that pacifies my inflamed mirror neurons. Sometimes, I scroll through the website for the Prado in search of Goya’s macabre paintings: Saturn Devouring his Son is a mirror-sensory synaesthete’s nightmare, but I find it fascinating in small doses.

I also attend costume events focused on what I like to call “phantasmagorgeous,” the intersection of allure and fear. San Francisco’s lovely underbelly supports numerous “haunted beauty” venues, from the Mission District’s traditional Dia de Los Muertos celebration to Paul Nathan’s Dark Cabaret.

On Halloween weekend, I’ll dress up in something dreadfully bewitching, and immerse myself in the sumptuous scenery of the Edwardian Ball’s Haunted Hourglass.

And, I’ll do my best to give my mirror neurons a rest.

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