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Halloween haunts: Is scare factor frightful or delightful?

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

Fear provides a natural, chemical kick that includes increased production of dopamine and oxytocin, among others, she said. Conquering that fear provides a psychological boost. When you go through something scary, but safe — roller coaster, haunted house, a scary movie — studies indicate that "surviving" it leaves individuals feeling more accomplished. And there are social benefits. Doing something fun but scary with family and friends builds stronger social bonds.

"I see that a lot at haunted attractions," said Kerr. "People come out the other side hugging and exchanging high fives. Strangers come out the other end as friends."

Experts say Halloween has changed in the last few decades, becoming more graphic, more high-tech and more frighteningly realistic. More adults seem to get into it, too. Herriges laughs that her parents didn't dress up, but her own Medusa costume is figured out, complete with green paint and a wig.

Halloween is also pretty unpredictable. What delivers a chill is not always what you think it will be. She's never met a clown that scared her, but little kids are sometimes terrified of them. Her kids trick-or-treated their way past ghosts and ghouls without incident, but her daughter nearly came unglued when a woman dressed as Raggedy Ann opened the door.

"That freaked her out," Herriges said. "I'm not sure why, but she would not go to that house."

Follow cues

Age matters, though fright may be as much personality as chronology. There are people who will never, at any age, enjoy a scary movie or being dogged by "Death" in a haunted corn maze. But taking a young child into a scary setting at Halloween is not recommended, Kerr said.

"My least favorite part of this type of work is children who go in and are too young to enjoy it, who don't understand it's not real," Kerr said. "That has a lot to do with both age and development. Around age 7 to 11, kids start to understand the difference between a real monster and a fake monster. Imaginative play is important, but when it crosses the line into terrifying, that's bad."

The sociologist said to know your child and gauge the "level of scariness" that's welcome.

"You want people to have a good time, to laugh and smile after they scream," Kerr said. "At (a too-young) age, I don't think they can do that. I often ask why bring your child. Sometimes, the answer is it's cheaper than paying for a baby sitter. That answer makes me very sad.

"My goal is to help people enjoy the benefits from being scared. As long as people understand themselves and their children, they can do that."

Kids, until they're about 15 and starting to break away, take their cues from parents, said Anne Speckhard, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

"Check inside yourself," Speckhard said. "If it's scaring you, you are probably communicating to your child that this is something to be scared of. Why would you want to instill fear in your child? Halloween should be fun."

She said some kids control fear by removing themselves from it. "We all get pleasure out of doing things well. Kids are no different. A kid who likes to go in a haunted house may be saying, death is scary, witches and goblins are scary, but I can handle it and I like handling it. I will run in and scream my head off and have a great time where I can be on edge, where I am learning to master my emotions."

A child who is simply terrified isn't benefiting that way and "it's not good for them," she said.

Remember Halloween's origins, said Speckhard. It's rooted in All Saint's Day, which is about death — something very little kids don't understand. But she, like Herriges, has watched a youngster panic when confronted with something she would not have predicted was scary. Her granddaughter, Katarina, was not quite 3 when a youthful Spider-Man sent her into a tizzy. Speckhard had to ask the boy to raise his mask and show the little girl that he was just a person in a costume.

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