Halloween celebrations have changed for students since they were children, from dressing up and trick-or-treating, to exhibiting high-risk behaviors.
Courtney Fox, a speech language and hearing sciences major, said she used to dress up as a Disney princess on Halloween and hit the streets trick-or-treating in her suburban neighborhood. But now that she’s in college, Fox said she ditched the Snow White get-up for a Playboy bunny costume and usually finds a local party for the holiday.
But Fox isn’t the only one who’s experienced this change. From adolescence to adulthood, there’s a transition that occurs across most college campuses. Students go from knocking door-to-door for bite-sized KIT KATS to excessively drinking at house parties while sporting flashy, and often promiscuous, costumes.
It turns out the big change in Halloween for college students may be linked to psychological factors, said psychology professor Mylina Andrew.
“[The transition] has to do with a complex interplay of body chemistry, brain development and cognitive growth,” Andrew said. “Our culture plays a part, as well.”
Adolescence, Andrew said, is the transitional period from childhood to adulthood, ranging from ages 10 to 21. She said that college students fit into the latter part of adolescence right before they reach young adulthood.
Biological, physical, psychological, social and cognitive changes are taking place during this timeframe, she said, and many of those developments are linked back to brain development. Andrew said two different areas of the brain–the amygdale and the pre-frontal cortex–are not fully developed, leaving students to engage in high risk taking and sensation-seeking behaviors as well as impulsive decision making.
“Younger children are happy with trick-or-treating during Halloween,” Andrew said. “And then you have older adolescence or young adults, the college-aged students. They want to participate in this high-risk taking behavior.”
Although Fox said she still takes her younger siblings out trick-or-treating as an “excuse” to continue in the festivities, she said candy isn’t enough on Halloween anymore.
“As a child, candy was our source of gaining that sugar high,” Fox said. “But as we get older and begin to drink, candy just doesn’t satisfy us. Partying and drinking is just a fun way to enjoy the entertainment of Halloween and costumes.”
But Andrew said there are many risks associated with this “risk-taking behavior” on Halloween – the same kind of risks that can arise anytime students binge drink.
Alcohol poisoning, drunk driving and sexually transmitted infections, she said, are just a few of the consequences of intoxication. And with big batches of alcoholic beverages being served up on holidays such as Halloween, Andrew said the risk of students getting drugged is even higher.
“When [students] are drinking irresponsibility to the point where they’re losing their good decision making ability, they become vulnerable,” Andrew said.
Junior economics major William Lincke, who dressed up as the scarecrow from the “Wizard of Oz” last year, said he has seen several fights break out at parties where alcohol is served on Halloween.
At a house party he attended last year, Lincke said a “big brawl” broke out, leading to the police asking everyone to leave. At the same party, he said a girl had to be carried out on a stretcher after a giant shard of glass from the bar split her leg open.
“People’s priorities are different from when they were little kids,” Lincke said. “People like drinking and partying more, and that’s a huge opportunity for them to dress up and do things they normally wouldn’t do.”
“It’s the norm in college, and [students drink] every other weekend, so why not do it when you’re dressed up in a costume?” he added.
Going to parties and taking risks such as binge drinking, Andrew said, is typical of college students and not just on Halloween. She said Thanksgiving Eve and New Year’s Eve are two other major holidays that mainly young adults celebrate with alcohol.
“Young people in this group will find any reason to have fun and party and take risks,” Andrew said. “That just goes along with this whole development.”
Andrew said many college students face an enormous amount of pressure to go to parties rather than spend quality time with their families or take part in other traditions such as trick-or-treating. College students are still affected by their peers’ perceptions of them, she added.
But going to parties isn’t the only trademark of the college version of Halloween. Many students, specifically girls, opt out of traditional costumes such as ghosts or scary monsters and instead hit the shelves looking for “sexy nurse” or “sexy firefighter” getups.
Junior dance major Heather Carney said she was a pirate for Halloween last year, but has seen many girls on campus dress up in “sexy” costumes.
“It can lead to bad attention,” Carney said. “At the same time, it’s kind of hard to find cute costumes that aren’t somewhat promiscuous.”
While some students may question the intentions behind wearing these “promiscuous” costumes, Andrew said Halloween is the perfect opportunity for students to live out their fantasies while not worrying about whether or not others are judging or evaluating them.
Women, she said, are “sexual beings” but are often criticized for their sexuality while men are not.
“Halloween might just offer that opportunity where we can freely dress as sexy as we want, and we have a reason,” she added.
Fox, who said she has dressed in showy costumes on Halloween, agreed.
“Halloween is definitely an excuse for girls to dress sexy,” she said. “It’s the one day a year that they don’t really worry about people judging them. I don’t consider it good or bad because Halloween is just meant to be fun without people judging costumes.”
While Lincke said he enjoyed looking at several girls in sexy costumes on Halloween, he said he doesn’t understand their inclination to do so.
“I think it’s really bizarre that girls like to get dressed up like that. They sort of use it as an excuse to dress slutty,” he said. “I feel like if [girls] could, they would dress up like that every week.”
The most important thing to remember on Halloween, Andrew said, is to be safe and remember your limits. But while Andrew suggests students stay in groups especially in the neighborhood surrounding campus, she said it’s perfectly fine to have fun on the holiday.
“[College] is time for experimentation and exploring oneself and trying to find out who you are, testing the waters and testing the limits,” Andrew said.
Cary Carr can be reached at email@example.com.