[Halloween 2014]

From scary movies to haunted houses, why do we like being afraid?

This reaction is not at all uncommon in the Trilogy of Terror by Freakling Bros.
Photo: L.E. Baskow

Don’t underestimate the minimally decorated Gates of Hell haunt within the popular Freakling Bros. Horror Shows. If the signed-waiver requirement doesn’t scare you off, wait until you encounter (spoilers!) the claustrophobic chambers, the ankle-grabbing ghouls and the pushy-shovey girl who screams the C word in the face of female passersby.

Worse, imagine your personal space being violated for two whole hours during the post-midnight, reservation-only Victim Experience. We’re talking (moar spoilerz!) being shocked, bruised, manhandled, having your head dunked in ice water and more—and it costs 10 times as much as the Gates of Hell.

As Halloween haunts grow in popularity and number, they’ve naturally become more severe. The Gates of Hell denies anyone under 17 from even entering, and the Victim Experience’s warning list would make anyone sane reconsider. Why do people seek out such horror?

Freakling Bros. co-producer JT Mollner believes it’s rooted in people’s willingness to experience, to quote novelist Douglas Coupland, adventure without risk. “Simulated danger is what we sell. That’s what we offer—an environment where people can put themselves through trauma knowing they’ll come out the other end okay.”

During Freakling’s Castle Vampyre, there’s a spider encounter that would likely shock Mollner, an admitted arachnophobe. “When I stumble upon a black widow in a wood pile, my heart pounds, I sweat and hopefully I get away from the spider … I get that rush, but I think I could die. In the castle, when the spider brushes by you, you get the rush, but you know there’s no repercussions.”

Professor Stephen Benning of UNLV’s psychology department also subscribes to the theory of simulated risk, adding that there’s not only a safety net of informed consent—similar to his research trials—but a psychological plus to confronting perceived danger. “You can have these experiences, which on the face seem very scary, where blood, gore and scary things are very prominent, but there’s also an additional positive activation in facing the challenge of that fear ... this is one of the ways modern society can face primal fears without danger.”

Both Benning and Mollner also believe those who face their fears experience a sense of accomplishment, especially when witnessed by their companions. That feeling is augmented when you figure in the dare factor that’s particularly prevalent among teenage hauntgoers, whose “survival” of the mazes becomes a competition. “Peers can influence people’s willingness to do this and survive a social test,” Benning says.

Then there’s the lure of the taboo. When Mollner was forbidden from watching slasher films as a kid, that only made him seek them out more—which is partly why he made Gates of Hell a 17-and-up attraction. And for those old enough, scares and gore may not be enough, which is why he created the Victim Experience.

“Lots of friends and haunters who are totally desensitized just wanted something more”—so much so, he says, the attraction’s reservations were snapped up within a day, prompting Freakling to plan a wintertime version.

“Part of it, as I think of the evolution of haunted houses, is novelty,” Benning says. “We tend to find new experiences to trigger a strong orienting response—like, what’s that?! If people learn what to expect, it would be unlikely your novelty system would engage and … it wouldn’t affect you as much.”

Then again, Mollner has gone through his attractions himself, but his threshold for fear ends where the Victim Experience begins. “Would I seek it out and pay for it? Probably not.”

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