25 Mar Science: Halloween masks scare animals as much as humans
Is a Halloween mask scary because of a belief in the supernatural, ghosts or the afterlife?
According to a study by researchers at the University of South Alabama, this may not be absolutely true.
Halloween is something only humans can experience. The holiday originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhuinn, where Druid priests disguised themselves as spirits to hide their mortality during the festival that marked the end of summer.
The Christian church finally replaced this pagan holiday with All Saints Day and All Hallows Eve which continued as a religious holiday commemorating the dead on October 31st. Dressing in scary costumes and masks on this holiday is a particularly modern day human experience, so scary Halloween masks should only be perceived as scary by humans, right?
In a recent paper published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology, Perception of Scary Halloween Masks by Zoo Animals and Humans by Joan M. Sinnott, H. Anton Speaker, Laura A. Powell, and Kelly W. Mosteller, researchers outline an experiment done with zoo animals to see if they also perceived the scary nature of Halloween masks. The experiment involved measuring an animal’s latency response to take food from a masked human and compare that to a group of human’s perception of the scary nature of the same masks.
The results showed that humans and primates both perceived the scary nature of the masks. The animals “rating? or hesitancy to take food compared to the human’s rating how scary the masks were correlated significantly.
These findings reveal that the human perception of scary faces is not dependant on human-specific cultural factors, like a belief in ghosts or the supernatural but rather is “rooted in more biological basis in which scary faces are perceived as predators or threatening conspecifics.? (Source)
According to the study, humans were objects of prey for most of their evolution and only recently are the master predators of the animal world. Even though Halloween masks have the faces of supernatural beings like witches, werewolves and vampires, those types of facial configurations resemble many universal predatory features.
“Wide open mouths with big canine teeth, and large glaring eyes with frowning eyebrows are universally accepted as threatening .Even simple eyespot stimuli (resembling two staring eyes) are perceived as threatening by a wide variety of animals, including snakes (Bern & Herzog, 1994), chickens (Jones, 1980), doves (Nakamura, Shirota, Kaneko, & Matsuoka, 1995), starlings (Inglis, Huson, Marshall, & Neville, 1983), mice (Topal & Csanyi, 1994), lemurs (Coss, 1978), and even humans (Aiken, 1998).? (Source)
Primates and humans share very similar facial muscles, involving eyes, eyebrows, ears, mouth and lips and research has indicated that in the primate kingdom facial gestures are more than simple emotional reflexes but can also be voluntary gestures to elicit allies or even to deceive. It makes sense that Halloween masks are scary to us humans not because of a belief in ghosts and goblins but because the masks reveal universal predatory facial features that we share with the rest of the animal kingdom; facial features humans along with our animal co-inhabitants on this earth use both consciously as well as unconsciously to scare each other with.