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Fear of Haunted Houses

A Look at the Common Triggers

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Updated October 23, 2012

Although it does not have an official "phobia name," the fear of haunted houses is surprisingly common. Many young children have this fear, but generally grow out of it by late childhood. In older kids and adults, the fear may be life-limiting. Visiting haunted attractions and touring allegedly "real" haunted houses is a rite of passage for many teens and adults, and the inability to participate makes some people feel isolated. In addition, the fear sometimes worsens over time to include other aspects of Halloween.

History of Haunted Attractions

Ghost houses and spooky dark rides have long been a part of carnivals and boardwalk attractions, dating at least to the Victorian era's focus on spiritualism. However, the commercial Halloween haunt is a relatively new endeavor. As late as the 1950s, Halloween was largely a children's holiday. The holiday's pagan roots and supernatural connection was downplayed, and the focus was on family fun. Over the next decades, however, scares gradually became an important element of the celebration.

The Jaycees may have been the first, or at least the best-known, early commercial haunt group, debuting their first walk-through haunt in the early 1970s. Building on the UNICEF concept of trick-or-treating for charity, the Jaycees haunts are run by volunteers and admission fees go to charity. The haunts were hugely popular from their inception, and many continue today.

In 1973, Knott's Berry Farm became the first theme park to transform itself for Halloween. The Knott's Scary Farm event was originally just three nights long, but its immense success caused the event to expand each year. It was the first large-scale commercial haunt, and became the model for haunted attractions around the country. By the 1980s, relatively inexpensive Halloween haunts were plentiful throughout the United States.

In1984, a deadly fire at a Six Flags haunt ushered in a new era of safety regulations for haunted attractions. Haunts were now monitored and regulated like any other attraction, but they remained relatively low-budget affairs. That all changed in the 1990s.

Modeled after a European touring show, Terror on Church Street opened in Downtown Orlando, Florida, on November 8, 1991. Open 364 nights a year, it was one of the first permanent haunts ever created. It was also the first time that a haunted house was staged as a professional theatrical show. Housed in a reportedly haunted mid-19th century building, Terror was a two-story immersion in fear. From makeup to costumes to props to sets, everything that Terror offered was intensely detailed, and the actors who brought it to life went far beyond the generic "jump out from a corner" scares that were then common in the industry. Creating detailed back stories for their characters, Terror actors pioneered numerous now-common interactive scare techniques.

Building on Terror's wildly successful model, modern haunted attractions are often sophisticated creations designed by experts in everything from engineering to psychology. They are intentionally frightening, delving into our most basic fears. High-tech animatronics, lighting and sound effects work in tandem with live actors to make the audience truly feel that they are part of the experience.

Allegedly Real Haunted Houses

Humans have long been drawn to the supernatural, and ghost tours have become big business in many towns. The standard "ghost walk" is a stroll through the city's oldest section, looking at the outsides of allegedly haunted buildings while the tour guide spins tales of the paranormal activity within. Some companies expand the distance covered by transporting guests in a trolley, a bus, or even a specially outfitted hearse. Haunted pub crawls mix drinking with ghost stories. For a more extreme experience, a number of paranormal investigation groups allow visitors to join an actual overnight investigation of a haunted property.

The Phobia

The fear of haunted houses may be rooted in a variety of beliefs or past experiences. For many people, the fear is based in a more generalized phobia of ghosts or demons. This may be especially true if you are more afraid of allegedly real haunted houses than you are of haunted attractions.

Modern haunted attractions are exceptionally diverse, drawing from a wide range of source material. However, most haunts share a small list of commonalities. They use darkness, tight spaces, fog effects and odd lighting to make visitors uncomfortable. Blood, gore, masks, loud noises and animatronics are used in various ways to create scares. Common horror movie creatures such as clowns, dolls, zombies and vampires are generally present. If you have a phobia of one or more these elements, it is easy to develop a fear of haunted houses.

In some people, however, the fear of haunted houses appears to exist independently. You may not notice any symptoms of a phobia in your daily life, yet find yourself terrified when asked to enter a haunted house. This may be due to the intensity of the experience and the illusion that there is no way to escape. Haunt owners are generally well-versed in the psychology of fear, and use relatively simple techniques to ratchet up the feeling of helplessness.

Coping With the Fear of Haunted Houses

For many people, the fear of haunted houses does not cause problems in daily life. Those who are truly afraid may simply turn down invitations to experience a haunted house and go about their lives unscathed. For some people, however, the fear is uncomfortable. You might be part of a social group that attends haunted attractions together, and feel bad about always turning down the offer. You might be a member of an organization that puts on an annual haunt. You might even find that, over time, your fear begins to expand to a more general fear of dark rides or of Halloween activities.

The best way of coping with your fear depends on the exact nature of the fear, its severity and your treatment goal. Do you want to feel totally comfortable visiting the most intense haunted houses in the country? Do you simply want to walk through kid-friendly haunts with your child? Are you interested in an overnight paranormal investigation, or do you want to hear the odd historical events relayed during an evening ghost walk?

Those with mild fears may be able to combat their nerves through simple exposure and education. Start with a known kid-friendly haunt rather than a long, intense experience. Visit your chosen haunt's website for detailed information on what to expect, and search for online reviews from people who have already attended. Learn about the art of the scare and the ways in which haunts prey on our basic fears. Visit haunted houses with friends or relatives who are not easily scared, and lean on them for support.

If your fear is more severe, professional assistance may be required. Your therapist will help you define your treatment goals and work up a treatment plan that is individualized to your needs. With assistance and a bit of work, you can successfully battle your haunted house fears.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

History of the Haunted House Industry. Haunted House Online. Retrieved October 20, 2012 from http://www.hauntedhouseonline.com/featured_artical/history_of_the_haunted_house_industry.cfm

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