Ghouls, gore and ghostly moans: How scary is too scary for Halloween?

What’s thrilling for some children is terrifying for others. Read on for a selection of family-friendly events

‘There are real live ghosts in there,” my five-year-old self screamed, running at full pelt from the basement of an historic Co Mayo house to the safe clutches of my amused parents, who were standing outside.

It’s one of those tales of my childhood that is recounted so often I’m not sure if the incident is seared in my memory or just regularly reloaded. All the same, the sound of clanking chains and ghostly moans being, as it turned out, played over a loudspeaker, seemed pretty real to me.

How scary is too scary is a question to ponder as families prepare for the ghouls and gore of Halloween. Where does the thrill end and terror begin?

"The capacity of the child in being able to see what's real and what's not is the most important part of that," says Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist with St Patrick's Mental Health Services in Dublin.


Dressing up

While reality and fantasy can be blurred for younger children, he thinks many can handle Halloween well because they can see everybody dressing up around them. “If somebody came to your door with a mask in the middle of May it might be a bit different,” he points out.

Once children can distinguish what’s real, they can be titillated by fear, he explains. “We know a certain amount of anxiety, like adrenaline, can cause us to feel better; like a rollercoaster.”

Problems can arise if that transient fear tips over into more rooted terror. He has had children come into his clinic long after seeing some horror film that has touched on an underlying vulnerability within.

Children's fear is very specific to themselves; what's scary to one isn't to another, says Noctor, author of Cop On, a guide to raising self-aware and resilient children.

Parents need to know their children and should escalate their exposure to things and experiences really gently. Age ratings on films and so on “are not just for the craic; there is a value in them”, he points out.

“What we know about small children is that they enjoy exploring the dark side of stories,” he says.

“It allows them to see some shadowy side in themselves. It’s a release that they don’t have to be good all the time.”

Dressing up for Halloween, when it’s in their own control, can be a very positive opportunity for playing with fantasy and one parents should go along with, he suggests. Showing a penchant for gory or “evil” costumes is a harmless outlet for darker thoughts.

Books are a good way to learn how brave you are and push the boundaries, says children’s author Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick. She describes her work as “creepy” but says it walks a very fine line: “If you don’t go far enough, there is no creepy there at all and it’s a bit boring, and if you push it too far it becomes unbelievable.”

Her favourite comment about one of her books, Hagwitch, was from a girl who said she was really enjoying it but she had to "read it downstairs and during the day".

Storyteller Rab Fulton, who will be spinning spooky yarns at a Samhain evening in Brigit's Garden in Co Galway (see listing) on October 30th, doesn't believe technology has diminished children's enjoyment of this traditional art.

“I do storytelling from infants to older children to teenagers,” he says. “I think people just love to hear a story. I am not sure if technology has [affected] people’s want and need and love of a story.

“In many ways it may have made the need for it even more.

“We all need to step into a magical place; we go on a journey in that magical place and then come out again. Storytelling is one of the most perfect ways of doing that,” adds Fulton, who tours with Poetry Ireland’s Writers in Schools scheme.

Halloweens of past

A fan of Halloween, Fitzgerald researched how it was celebrated in Dublin in 1796 for her book Dark Warning. She found it was a huge event then, involving all the family and observing traditions such as leaving places at the dining table for the dead on Halloween night and dressing up to avoid being recognised and taken away by the fairies.

Unlike the pink, Disneyfied version of fairies that predominates today, fairies have traditionally been seen in Ireland as “quite mischievous, if not downright malevolent”, she explains.

“It is a real shame if we lose that kind of lore,” she says, fearing that the true sense of Halloween is disappearing. “Many of us have no idea of why we dress up and go from house to house asking for things; we’re just doing it.”

Traditionally it is the night that the veil between this world and the afterworld is down and so the spirits, good and bad, can walk among us.

It is also regarded as an opportune time for fortune telling on the year ahead, which is why items were hidden in the traditional dish of colcannon or brack: getting a bone signified death; a piece of cloth, poverty; a coin, wealth; and the ring, a wedding within the year. (Only the ring persists in commercial bracks today.)

Fitzpatrick remembers how she and her friends used to peel the skin off apples in one go and toss it over their shoulders – the letter it formed on landing indicated the name of their true love.

She recommends parents start to think, Is there something I did in my childhood that I could do with my kids?

“Now is the time to pass it on. If you don’t pass it on and your kids stop doing Halloween in a few years’ time, the chance is gone.”

A selection of family-friendly Halloween events

Spirits of Meath: The county where Halloween began more than 3,000 years ago, according to legend, hosts a Halloween Festival that started last weekend and runs until November 1st, with more than 37 events, 25 geared towards families. See full programme or tel. 046 909 7060;

Pooka Spooka and Farmaphobia: Traditional Halloween games and crafts, along with "limb throwing" and "tunnel of terror", are some of the events at Causey Farm's celebrations for families with children aged up to 12 years, October 25th-26th and 29th-31st, 1.30pm-5.30pm. €13 per ticket (both adult and child). On this same farm a much more terrifying experience awaits older teenagers and adults at Farmaphobia, which was voted Best European Independent Attraction at Europe's only awards for the "scare industry" earlier this year. Passes range from €18 to €60.

Samhain Festival of Fire: Join the torchlit procession up Tlachtga Hill, believed to be the Celtic birthplace of Halloween, on October 31st, leaving the Fairgreen, Athboy, at 7.30pm. Tayto Park: For children over eight, there's the "House of Horrors" by day (€6 extra on admission of €14) at the Ashbourne theme park, October 24th to November 1st, 11am-4pm but there are also Halloween activities for younger visitors. Those aged 14-plus get the chance to "Confront the Darkness" with a ride on the Cú Chulainn rollercoaster in the dead of night, October 27th-30th, 6pm-9pm, €18.

Pick your pumpkin: Families can choose their own Jack O’ Lantern at a number of pumpkin farms, including one outside Summerhill, open daily until October 31st, 11am to 5pm (tel. 086 037 6583) or at Alright Pumpkin in Fordstown, (where you can pick your own sweetcorn too), from October 24th-31st, noon-6pm (tel. 087 291 2492).

Museum moves: From "scary skulls" and "creepy cauldrons" to upcycled costumes and terrifying tales of vicious Vikings, all four branches of the National Museum (three in Dublin and one in Co Mayo) are putting on free events for children between October 27th and 31st. See

Masquerade mystery: Spooky tours of Malahide Castle, Co Dublin, where there will be face-painting and magic shows in the Visitor Centre. October 28th-31st, 10.30am-3.30pm; adult €12; child €6; family tickets €30. Booking on tel. 01 816 9538; or see

Galway Aboo: The City of the Tribes hosts what it claims to be the country's biggest Halloween Festival, October 24th-25th and 31st. The highlight will be the spectacular Macnas parade, "The Shadow Lighter", starting at 5.30pm on October 25th. All spectators are invited to dress in costume too. See and

Bram Stoker Festival: Macnas head to Dublin the next day to stage "Arise! Awake", a Twilight Procession on October 26th, winding its way through the city from 5.30pm to finish with pyrotechnics at Wolfe Tone Square at 6.30pm. It's one of the family-friendly events in this October 23rd-26th celebration of the Dublin-born writer who created Dracula. Others include a pop-up Gothic theme park, "Stokerland", a free event with street performers in Dublin's Wolfe Tone Square, noon-5pm on October 25th; and The Scary Trail at Marsh's Library, October 23rd-24th, 11am-5pm, entrance free.

Haunted woods: Children are encouraged to "dress up to scare" as a personal monster hunter leads them through the "gruesome gardens" at Birr Castle, Co Offaly, on a Halloween trail. October 23rd-25th and 30th and 31st, with tours running every 30 minutes from 5pm-9pm. €12.50 child, €5 adult, €30 family. Not suitable for under fives. To book, see

Halloween Howl: Kenmare in Co Kerry goes to town on scare tactics for the week October 24th-31st, with scarecrow building and haunted forest walks to "cranky cooking" and pumpkin-carving workshops, culminating in its traditional parade on Halloween night at 6pm.

Celtic charms: Brigit’s Garden near Rosscahill, Co Galway will host a Samhain evening of Celtic crafts, storytelling with Rab Fulton, parade with the púca and lighting of the Halloween bonfire, on October 30th, 4pm-9pm. Adult €7; child €5; family of five €25.

Dangerous World: Families are invited to "risk life and limb" and join comedian and writer David O'Doherty, the author of "Danger is Everywhere" (Penguin Books), and illustrator Chris Judge to hear about making characters come to life at the National Gallery, Dublin. October 30th, noon-1pm. A free, family event suitable for all ages, but particularly those aged seven plus. Email to book places.

Westport House: The 18th-century Westport House in Co Mayo is transformed from October 24th to 31st into a (not too) scary haunted house. Line-up includes the White Witch and her story time, ghastly face painting and Jack O'Lantern carving (€2.50 per pumpkin). Westport House and the Halloween Fest workshops operate 11am to 5pm daily and the rides are open from 1pm to 5pm. Adult €21; child €16.50; family €60. Meanwhile, outside the walls, a Spooky Train Tour will tell tales of ghosts and ghouls. Pick-up points at the town-centre gate to Westport House and the Quay, Westport, with trains departing daily, October 24th to 31st, from 11am to 2pm. See

Dragon of Shandon: Walking with the dragon in a procession starting from Shandon in Cork at 7.30pm on October 31st, into the city centre and back, is the culmination of a community festival running October 29th-31st, featuring scary stories and ghost tours among its programme.

Virginia Pumpkin Festival: Spine-chilling fun for all the family in the Forest of Fears, at Virginia RFC, on October 23rd, 7.30pm, which kicks off the town's Halloween celebrations, running until October 26th. A giant pumpkin will preside over the procession staged by LUXe, complete with aerial performers and dancers, leaving the Virginia Showgrounds at 6pm on October 25th and finishing with fireworks by the lake.

Treasure hunts: Belvedere House in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, is running treasure hunts on October 24th-26th, every half hour from noon-2pm. Booking advised. Adult €8; child €4. Tel. 044 934 9060;

Spooky express: For one day only, the Waterford and Suir Valley Railway will run a ghost train on October 24th, every 45 minutes from Kilmeadan, 5pm to 9pm. Adult €13, under 16 €10. Tel. 051 384 058;

Trick or treat trail: Test the grey matter with Castlecomer Discovery Park's Halloween challenge in Co Kilkenny, October 25th to November 2nd. Families can register at reception between noon and 4pm to collect their question sheet before heading into the woods and, at the end, receive their treat – or trick. €10 family.

Witch's lair: The ancient hag of wisdom and Irish Folklore, the Cailleach, is in her lair underneath the National Leprechaun Museum in Dublin, the original site of the Jervis Street Morgue. Under-18s can visit her October 23rd to November 1st before 6pm, with over-18s only after 6pm. €7 for adult or child. See

Halloween Happenings: Spooky days at Lullymore Heritage and Discovery Park on the Bog of Allen, Co Kildare, from October 24th to November 1st, 10am to 6pm, with ghastly ghouls, haunted holograms and one terror train trip included for every family. Prizes for best fancy dress. Family €28. Tel. 045 870 238;

Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of these listings at the time of going to press, please check details before  avelling. Family ticket covers two adults and two children unless otherwise stated.