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Halloween haunts: Is scare factor frightful or delightful?

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 29 2013 8:25 a.m. MDT

Grave digger Noah Bailey scares patrons at Nightmare on 13th in Salt Lake City Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Troy Barber's six kids were somewhat divided on what makes a scare good. Five felt a little thrill and loved it, even when they were little, while the sixth was always considerably less enchanted by fright.

Children in the same family can be divided on what is too scary during a season that often celebrates zombies and witches and giant rats. But that this difference of opinion happened at Barber's house makes one smile: He owns Nightmare on 13th, a spooktacular haunted attraction that draws thousands of scare-seekers from all over Utah at Halloween.

Americans get frightfully excited about this holiday. America Haunts, a national organization of haunted attractions to which Nightmare on 13th belongs, estimates there are more than 1,200 haunted attractions that charge admission, another 300 amusement facilities that include a Halloween-themed event and more than 3,000 charity attractions that open around Halloween, usually as a fundraiser. The appetite for scary thrills creates fearsome competition.

Barber the dad knows it's not one-scream-fits-all when it comes to what makes some frights fun and others simply frightening.

"Ninety percent of the people who come have fun," he said, adding those who don't like fake-scary situations usually just don't show up at all, though they may be roped in by friends. "Kids are all different, and the mistake I see parents make is they decide 'It's time for you to go to a haunted house.’ ”

Dragging a reluctant kid through his attraction's three "nightmares" isn't a good idea, he said. Halloween — including the scary side — is about having fun.

When people ask him at what age a child can go, he said, "That's an impossible question for me to answer. … Kids are all different." He doesn't recommend taking any kids under 6 or 7 to the haunted house.

"For most people, it's a fun time of the year," Barber said. "But don't pressure your friends. If they don't want to go (whether to a haunted house or a scary movie), respect that."

The bright side

Skill-building may not be the first thing to come to mind when people think Halloween, but that's one thing Carol Herriges thinks the day provides, based on her experience trick-or-treating first with her three kids and now with her grandkids.

"Halloween allows the little tykes to gain a gradual mastery of frightening scenarios," said Herriges, a communications manager at Serapid Worldwide in Sterling Heights, Mich. "Each year, they graduate to more involved and scarier activities, over time developing the confidence for social situations. We'll never see a tarantula that can eat us or have to run from zombies, but we learn to face fearsome situations with camaraderie and humor.

"The bonding over foolish things helps us face the real difficulties that we will need to face as adults. I think Halloween has real value in child development."

"I think that there are lots of ways that people can enjoy scary material," said Margee Kerr, a sociologist who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and Robert Morris University. She's also a "scare expert" on staff at The ScareHouse in Pittsburgh. "We tend to focus on the negative aspects of fear and they are valid and important. But there are ways we enjoy it and can benefit from it."

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