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."
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."
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.
That's part of the pleasure and pain of Halloween on the streets. You don't know who you will meet or how a child will react. Parents usually have a "sensitivity meter" to their children and know who likes an adrenaline burst and who hates it, she said. "Always, as parents, watch your kids and see where they are hitting their tolerances. Also, don't expect your kids to be like you."
Speckhard recommends preparing young children for what they might see. Take them trick-or-treating before they do a gory zombie walk. If you decide something would be too much for a chid, talk to them about it and why. And talk about what you might see.
"I think kids do best — even little, little kids — if we tell them what expectations are of the event: 'We're going out and may see some scary guys, but we're just going to laugh because they're not real.' If you laugh, they take their cue. You have created an expectation and protected them in some way," she said.
It is unlikely, added Speckhard, that seeing something scary at Halloween will do much more than create a couple of nightmares. But why do that?
Barber opened Nightmare on 13th with a college buddy 24 years ago, with no great plans to do it for a living. He offers practical advice for parents who aren't sure a child is ready to be scared. Look with the child at a haunted attractions website and see how the child does with the pictures or videos there.
"If that's spooking them, don't come." If they make it past that, he suggests checking out the 7-foot-6 pumpkin monster in the parking lot. If a child or adult heads the other way, hop in the car and move on.
Screams, said Barber, are actually a pretty decent good-time meter. "Most screams are fun. People who are really scared, to the point they shouldn't be going, are not usually screaming. They are freezing, panicking, have gone quiet or are looking for a way to get out of this."
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