Dust off your witch’s hat and report to the pumpkin patch, because Halloween is nearly here! Yep, the time of year when we embrace the spooky, ooky and perhaps even the pukey (if you drink too much Halloween punch…yuck!)

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Deriving from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, where the veil between the living and the dead was supposed to be at its thinnest, today it’s usually a commercial kaleidoscope of plastic bats, grinning pumpkins and dancing skeletons. (Not to mention the time when candy companies across the world get a boom in profits.) 

Embracing Fear

However, despite all the plasticky accouterments, for many people it is the closest they get to acknowledging the inevitable: death is coming for everyone. Not to be grim and all, but cultures that embrace death more openly (such as Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos) tend to have a less fearful attitude towards it — something everyone could benefit from. 

Sssshh Don’t Say ‘Bad Trip’

It’s much the same with ‘bad trips.’ The phrase no one wants to hear in psychedelic circles. It’s one of the main things that scares people off from experimenting with the tools that can both open their minds and provide a hell of a ride. But it’s understandable. They tend to be talked about less than the good trips, swept under the rug, as if by mentioning their name they shall appear, summoned like a ghost. 

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However, if you are a user of psychedelics, the potential of a bad trip is a fact of life. In fact logically, the more you use them, the higher your odds are to have one. They’re not common, but y’know it’s possible. It’s less possible if you are sensible with your dosage, your set and setting and take into account your experience level as well as your current mood. All things a smart tripper usually does!

Can Bad Trips Be Good?

The funny thing is however, as psychedelics like magic mushrooms become more and more talked about, the dialogue about ‘bad trips’ is growing too. And from the sharing of information, a more complicated and nuanced picture is growing. It seems a bad trip… can be good?

Say whaaaat? You may shriek, as if you’ve seen a ghost. 

Well simmer down scream-queen, perhaps it’s Casper the Friendly Ghost. Ever consider that?

But anyway, silliness aside, there’s a whole host of anecdotes, stories and even scientific studies appearing that report that there are many benefits which can be reaped from a not-totally-pleasant trip.

‘It Can Be Frightening’

In some ways it makes sense right? Challenges are character building and can reveal strengths you didn’t know you had. However, in the moment it can be hard to see the potential positives. In the words of one reddit user (with an appropriately Halloween-y wizard reference) :

“…prepare for the experience and treat going into it like Harry Potter entering the maze at the end of the 4th movie. People may be cheering you on but once the maze closes, you’re on your own, it’s foreign, it can be frightening. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. You may need to fight off some demons, you may need to stretch yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of.”

Like the HP metaphor this redditor uses, a bad trip should be treated as a journey, an adventure with some scary bits thrown in. The key thing is to remember it is only temporary.

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Many who take high psilocybin doses with the aim of ego-death arm themselves with almost talisman-like items. These include notes to themselves when they are sober to their tripping selves, saying things like ‘you are tripping’ and ‘this will pass.’

Different things work for different people. Some speak their fears aloud, some go for a walk, some focus on their breathing, some wrap themselves in blankets. The thing that many experienced trippers say is that you can’t really fight it. If you surrender to the experience you will get through it. Another wise redditor Substantial-Bag5457 shares;

“Once the trip goes into a direction you dont want to change it but ride it and accept it. Fighting it will make it worse. If you see yourself heading down a waterfall its ok, there may be cotton candy on the other side.”

The Science of Bad Trips

Once the bad trip ends and you sober up (remember it’s only a couple of hours at most) is, according to scientists, is when it can actually blossom into a good thing. 

In a paper called ‘Making “bad trips” good: How users of psychedelics narratively transform challenging trips into valuable experiences’, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, researchers showed the results of their bad trip homework.

The study focused on 50 Norwegian psychedelics users, and took the form of a series of in depth interviews. The researchers found that almost all of the volunteers had had ‘frightening’ experiences while on psychedelics that they would describe as a ‘bad trip’. Mostly this was due to too high doses of psychedelics, from psilocybin to LSD or DMT. However, the majority of the participants argued that these experiences had in fact been beneficial and gifted them life-changing insights. Some rejected the concept of a ‘bad trip’ all together. 

The Stories We Tell

The researchers analyzed their results alongside the concept of ‘narrative theory’, i.e. the stories we tell to, and about, ourselves. Many of the volunteers had made sense of a negative experience by integrating it into a story of growth and the overcoming of adversity. For example, one of the volunteers, Hannah in her early 30s said; 

 “No, I don’t look at it as a bad trip, because it’s like (…) the bad trips are what gives you the most insights. It’s this [bad] trip that shows you some sides of yourself that you perhaps have tried to diminish, that probably are the most important ones to understand. [These are insights] about who you really are, who you have been, what you’ve done, right. You have to see your flaws to be able to work through stuff.” 

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‘A Symbolic Place of Pleasure, Risk, Danger’

The researchers identified that these self-reported experiences reflected age-old story-telling structures.

“Leaving the safety of home in order to undertake a journey into the woods is the starting point for innumerable fables; the dark forest is a symbolic place of pleasure, risk, danger and subverted social rules” (Turner & Measham 2019)

— is the quote the researchers chose to represent this sort of tale-making. And it makes sense with the way we think about trips themselves. Firstly, I mean, they’re called ‘trips’. They are an epic, sometimes life-changing journey we can make, even if we are sitting still. Like a fairytale they can transport us, and teach us things. But better, because they don’t center around helpless princesses being rescued by presumptuous princes. 

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Facing Your Demons

To invoke a more seasonal comparison, in The Nightmare Before Christmas (which is BOTH a Halloween and Christmas film, so don’t get mad!) Jack Skellington decided he, previously master of Halloween, wants to become master of Christmas. It goes terribly, trippily wrong. But once Jack is through his festive nightmare he returns revitalized, full of new ideas and juice and zest for life. He’s going to be more spooky than anyone EVER thought possible. You get the gist. He went through a tough time and came out stronger (and with a ragdoll girlfriend). 

via Wikipedia Commons

If you are not a claymation skeleton, some of the things you may meet and come to terms with after a bad trip could be;

  • Negative habits and addiction;
  • Your deepest fears and anxieties;
  • Past traumas;
  • Mistakes you made in your past;
  • Feelings of low self-esteem and negative self-image;
  • The big themes such as the meaning of life, death, or freedom.

Dealing with these issues when they crop up is not easy. However, they are often crucial, and by confronting them, people often discover new perspectives and ways of being. The trip becomes a meaningful turning point and they can begin to move forward. 

Or as usual, a reddit user, mrmustard12, summed it up when they said;

“I realized I didn’t like what I was doing with my life and took a different direction.”

Simple as really — a wake-up call from the universe.

Bad Trips: A Trick and a Treat

This Halloween you might decide to take some magic truffles or shrooms and get shimmery, and spiritual, and spooky. It’s probably gonna be amazing! Especially if you’re throwing a psychedelic Halloween do. 

However, in the small chance things do get difficult, remember that a bad trip is like a ghost story, it seems scary, but really it is often just telling us something about ourselves. It’s both a trick and a treat.

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So, talk to your friends, stay safe, and always remember that it will pass. 

Happy Halloween!