Seasonal Happenings

Is Your Child Ready for a Haunted House?

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Take a look behind the scenes to help decide.

I’m an avid fan of Halloween, so my children have always been surrounded by ghoulish things. One of my most proud moments as a parent was when my boys were toddlers and we had just arrived home from an outing. I unbuckled their car seats and hoisted them to the ground. Suddenly, out of the garage, a menacing six-foot pharaoh came lumbering towards them, snarling and growling, its outstretched arms swinging and grabbing at them. My oldest son, who was just 3 at the time, shouted, “Hi Dad!” and walked past him into the house. My youngest just giggled. When I asked my son how he knew it was Daddy, he replied, “I could see his tennis shoes.”

Scientists believe that we are born with only two fears: fear of loud noises and fear of falling. That means all other fears are learned, usually at a very young age, and often through social observation. When Mom points at a spider and screams “Look! A spooky spider!” infants quickly learn that small bugs are something to be afraid of.

“Lots of people enjoy scary situations because they leave them with a sense of confidence after they’re over,” says Dr. Margee Kerr, a sociologist. “To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment. It’s all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience a flood of adrenaline, but in a completely safe space.”

Behind the Scenes of a Haunted House
Commercial haunts began springing up in the 1970s when the Jaycees [United State Junior Chamber—JC’s], a leadership training and civic organization, began building them as a fundraiser for local charities. Today, haunted houses are big business, with some of them generating hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue.

To help determine if your child is ready for a haunted attraction, you first need to understand what he’ll be encountering. The primary goal of a haunted house is to make money. Harsh, I know, but I used to run one. They make money by getting as many people through the attraction as fast as possible—and the fastest way to do that is to scare them so they’ll want to leave.

Suspension of disbelief starts with creating a foreboding and unsettled environment. There are many factors that go into creating an illusion, including controlling senses—what guests hear, see, feel, even smell. Sinister music playing in the background, dim lighting, an uneven floor and a musty smell are all ways to make people believe that they really are walking through a crypt. The less familiarity, the more guests are left confused or unsure.

While props and set dressing make the space feel real, it is the actors who do the real scaring. Creeping up behind someone and banging a piece of wood on the wall is a great startle. Standing still like a prop, then lunging is also effective. I personally prefer a more subtle approach—walking up to someone silently, invading her personal space and whispering softly into her ear. It’s often more effective than jumping out of a hidden door.

Pitch-black areas are great for disorienting people, followed by a bright spotlight to cause temporary blindness. By the time eyes adjust, anything menacing can be a huge surprise.

Here are a few secrets to help navigate a good haunted house:

  • Haunt actors rarely jump out in front of people. This blocks the path and causes them to back up into people behind them. Remember, the goal is to move people quickly through the attraction; this means getting them to move towards the exit.
  • Actors typically scare from the side or behind in an effort to propel people forward.
  • Actors tend to avoid scaring the first person in a group, who is typically the bravest. The really fun scares are saved for those at the back of the group.
  • Haunt actors are not allowed to touch people, primarily for liability reasons. They will, however, get as close to people as physically possible in order to make them uncomfortable.
  • If a person is feeling nervous, tell him to simply close his eyes!
  • The best way to determine if a child is ready for a haunted house is for parents to visit it beforehand so they’ll understand what the kids will encounter.

Gina Petrone is a freelance writer who channels her love of scary things by working with her tween boys on their middle school haunted house.