When my oldest was four, she insisted on dressing up as Pluggie the Fire Plug for Halloween. A staple at neighborhood events, Pluggie was a three-foot-tall robotic hydrant that rolled its eyes and squirted water at whoever dared to approach. Amber adored Pluggie. So I bought two sheets of red poster board and created a Pluggie costume, complete with a fire hose squirt bottle.
Halloween is a favorite holiday for many children. Dressing up, trick-or-treating, and listening to scary stories can all be part of the fun. But what do children actually believe about vampires and ghosts? Are they fooled into thinking that animated fireplugs are real? Do they question whether favorite characters like Elsa and Olaf really exist?
The surprising answer is that they understand the difference between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ much better than we might think. Experimental psychologist Rohan Kapitany and his team have found that children can distinguish among actual, imagined, and pretend figures by the time they turn three. They recognize that dinosaurs were once real and that dragons and unicorns are fantasies. And they know that media characters like Princess Elsa are fictional.
However, if adults around children claim that certain figures are real, children are likely to agree. Kapitany says this is why children believe in ghosts longer than they do vampires. Adults tend to dismiss vampires as fictional, whereas they may claim to have seen a ghost or use that label for persons who have died. These testimonies to the existence of ghosts convince children that ghosts are indeed real, or at least ambiguous.
Culturally endorsed rituals around certain figures also encourage children to believe. This is why Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and the Tooth Fairy have a longer shelf life than Olaf or Pluggie. Putting out cookies, hunting chocolate eggs, or leaving a tooth under one’s pillow reinforces a figure’s existence, at least until other evidence contradicts these experiences. Kapitany found that it isn’t until children are eight or nine that most let go of their belief in Santa.
Direct evidence and positive emotional experiences also affect children’s belief. Over a third of the children in Kapitany’s study claimed that Santa was real because they had seen him. Furthermore, Santa brings them presents, which they enjoy. Most Halloween figures can’t compete in this way. An encounter with a zombie doesn’t evoke the same positive feeling as finding a dollar bill from the Tooth Fairy in the morning.
A child’s definition of ‘real’ also matters. Ask an eight-year-old if dinosaurs are real, and they may respond that they were real but aren’t anymore. This sort of answer demonstrates that children can think about what’s ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ with a fair amount of nuance. They can recognize that a character like Sojourner Truth was ‘real’ historically but is ‘unreal’ (no longer living) in current life.
When Amber put on her Pluggie costume, she already knew that the animated fireplug wasn’t real. She suspected the firefighters who stood near Pluggie had some kind of remote control. Nevertheless, she enjoyed pretending that Pluggie was alive and I liked to play along. Halloween is, after all, a time of make-believe, for children and adults alike.