Adult Halloween Is Stupid, Embarrassing, and Very Important

The most inherently childish holiday might be the one grown-ups need the most.

A person dressed as a unicorn parading down the street in New York city
Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency / Getty

When I was a kid, fun felt really fun. Reading a book was completely immersive; chasing the dog around the yard was transcendent; running a fake restaurant with rocks as potatoes was the honor of a lifetime. The absolute peak, though, was Halloween. I can still recall bounding down the sidewalk in the cool October air, chuffed to be up late, drunk on the maniacal power that comes from knocking on strangers’ doors and demanding candy.

It’s not that, as an adult, I don’t do anything that could be called fun; it’s just that fun doesn’t feel quite the same as it used to. Getting dinner with friends is lovely. My little neighborhood stroll is nice. Standing around at a party and shouting over music to catch up with acquaintances is … fine. I just no longer experience the deep, whimsical joy that a rock potato could once bring. Still, I believe in chasing the ghost of my former lighthearted self. And if there’s one day when I might almost catch up, it’s Halloween: the most ridiculous, inherently childish holiday, and perhaps the one grown-ups need most.

Adults really do require fun. Studies have shown that play—something done purely for enjoyment—is linked to higher life satisfaction, boosted creativity, and improved cognitive health. It can help people cope with stress and facilitate learning, bonding, and communication. Some researchers warn of “play deprivation,” which can leave you tense and grumpy, like a Sim with a depleted fun meter. In real life, though, replenishing your fun meter is arguably more complicated than clicking for WooHoo or sitting in a rocking chair. Human adults have the baggage of grief, of responsibility, of higher priorities, like paying taxes or finding your life’s purpose. And trying to force fun on command can ruin the point, which is to do something pointless.

Another reason Halloween will never be exactly what it was in childhood: Kids tend to feel emotions deeply, perhaps because they can’t fully understand or contextualize them. Adults, meanwhile, have (hopefully) learned to better manage their emotions—and may experience them as diluted for that reason. Children might also have intense fun because they’re experiencing novelty. Just speaking personally, the upcoming 27th Halloween of my life does feel slightly less fresh than the seventh one.

But that doesn’t mean grown-ups can’t have fun in our own jaded way. Catherine Price, the author of The Power of Fun, argues that adults today tend to get distracted by “fake fun”: activities that we categorize as leisure but that don’t really make us feel great (for example, standing around at a party and shouting over music to catch up with acquaintances). True fun, she says, combines playfulness, connection, and “flow,” or undistracted engagement. Together, the three “encourage us to shed our inhibitions and formal facades.”

Parents can access Halloween magic by proxy. Even when children are smearing melted chocolate on the couch or insisting, God forbid, that you take them to a haunted house, it’s hard not to love how they light up with delight. Casting the spell of spooky enchantment can be just as fun as falling under it yourself. And if your kid puts on Hocus Pocus, you’re in luck, because it still slaps.

Nonparent adults like me, though, often can’t experience childlike fun vicariously. So instead of letting our kids dress up, ruin their teeth, and carve faces into giant winter squashes, we can just do it ourselves. It’s kitschy; it’s gauche; honestly, it’s humiliating. No Halloween tradition is cool, and no costume is really that clever. But that’s the beauty: The holiday presents a fleeting chance to stop taking ourselves so seriously. In order to shed our formal facade, as Price puts it, we might need to humble ourselves by putting on a new facade, just for one night.

To be fair, adult Halloween doesn’t always mean pure, wholesome fun; sometimes it’s associated more with, say, vomiting in the street. But at its best, it’s deeply sweet. When everyone is wearing a dumb outfit and surrounded by tacky decorations, you all withhold judgment together. You might even remember, just for a second, who you were as a young child: unencumbered by pretensions and insecurities, present and goofy and willing to take things as they are.

These days, I spend most of my weeks in grim focus: working, thinking about work, considering my future, talking with my friends about their future. Occasionally, I break and listen to dismal news podcasts or read sad books. It’s a great life to have, and it’s largely the one I want. Still, contrast that with last Halloween, when I wore a pink Jersey Girl cap, pink sunglasses, and a pink sequined tube dress and called myself the “Spirit of New Jersey.” I danced in a room of people who looked equally stupid and embarrassing; ugly little goblins floated on the walls, cast by a dusty projector; two separate baby dolls, abandoned by their handlers, surfed the crowd.

This year, I’ll be a volcano, which will involve nothing more than a brown outfit and an orange wig. No one will get it, so I’ll have to explain myself a thousand times over. But it won’t matter anyway. It’ll all be absolutely meaningless—and that’s what will make it meaningful.