Today is Halloween. As always, there was a slow, suspenseful buildup to this much-anticipated night. After weeks of spooky creatures greeting diners at Rathbone, “Ouija” trailers overshadowing popular websites, and the dizzying hunt for the perfect costume, it has finally arrived. Candy and costumes are two perks of this spirited holiday, but some people embrace Halloween for its darker side.
For many, dodging chainsaws in haunted houses, venturing through eerie forests on thrilling hayrides and hiding behind friends during scary movie marathons are all part of the fun.
If the fascination with being scared seems a bit odd, staff sociologist Dr. Margee Kerr at Pittsburgh’s famous haunted house, ScareHouse, says that monsters are pervasive concepts in every culture, citing South America’s Chupacabra, Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster, and Japan’s Yōkai as examples.
She says, “Humans have been scaring themselves and each other since the birth of the species, through all kinds of methods like storytelling, jumping off cliffs, and popping out to startle each other from the recesses of some dark cave. And we’ve done this for lots of different reasons—to build group unity, to prepare kids for life in the scary world, and, of course, to control behavior.” Her last sentence adds a surprising element to the history, “But it’s only really in the last few centuries that scaring ourselves for fun (and profit) has become a highly sought-after experience.”
It’s a weird concept to grasp: there is a whole industry based off of fear.
Most research shows that people watch horror movies and seek haunted experiences for many different reasons. A common theme, however, is that they allow us to grapple with the uncertainties of life. An article, “The Psychology of Scary Movies,” explains, “Horror movies require us to face the unknown – to understand it and make it less scary. They allow us to see our fears and put them into context, to play what if, and in doing so, they shape our belief systems, how we see each other and ourselves.”
That game of “what if” forces us to consider scary but possible situations and how we would react to them. Even the most outlandish monsters have some root in reality. For instance, the monsters featured in popular American movies have changed drastically over the past century in accordance with evolving social norms, technology and historic events. The psychology article says, “Looking at the history of horror, you have mutant monsters rising in the 50s from our fear of the nuclear bogeyman, zombies in the 60s with Vietnam, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ as a mistrust in authority figures stemming from the Watergate scandals and Zombies again in the 2000s as a reflection of viral pandemic fears.”
One of the key appeals movies and haunted houses that confront collective fear is that they combine reality with a protective layer of the imaginary, so it can hit home without truly hurting. Dr. Glenn D. Walters mentions in his essay, “Understanding the Popular Appeal of Horror Cinema: An Integrated-Interactive Model,” that “Edward Gein—a Wisconsin farmer notorious for murder, grave robbery and necrophilia in the 1950s—served as the model for portions of three classic horror movies: ‘Psycho’ (1960), ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974), and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991).” These scary classics were small doses of reality framed within the digestible pill of fiction.
Somehow, though, the small doses of reality seem to be growing bigger and bigger. Haunted houses and horror movies focus more and more on less abstract versions of societal problems and more on very concrete monsters.
When haunted houses start walking the very thin line between stimulation and actual torture, and movies inch towards even more graphic displays of violence, what does that say about the fears we share as a society?
In her Time article, “Extreme Haunted Houses Aren’t Cool–They’re Inhumane,” Stephanie Sylverne describes her feelings towards San Diego’s McKamey Manor and other haunted houses that push the envelope way too far. “When I see the pictures from inside McKamey Manor, I can’t help but think of the people for whom being kidnapped, tortured, assaulted and murdered is a real-life nightmare and not some type of abstract amusement, and they are almost always the most vulnerable: LGBTQ communities, people of color, children, women of all backgrounds,” she says. “Nearly every day, I hear of another. I imagine people who have to wake up daily to this terror, either as survivors or the loved ones of those lost, and I feel like it’s a twisted form of privilege to voluntarily participate in it for kicks.”
She forcefully condemns those who attend those houses, yet there is a 17,000-person waiting list for McKamey Manor alone. Even BuzzFeed writers couldn’t turn down the invitation to nervously travel through Blackout House in NYC, “America’s Most Notorious ‘Psychosexual’ Haunted House.”
On a slightly different note, “Gone Girl,” a psychological thriller, soared to the top of the box office this month. The film brilliantly combined a lot of very real issues, like unemployment, warped media coverage, infidelity, sexual assault and murder, into a compelling yet, at points, graphic movie. While this movie is clearly very different from extreme haunted houses, it shares the sense of reality. Unlike most scary movies, which tend to be very far removed from people’s everyday lives, “Gone Girl” relies on common insecurities to make its plot all the more chilling. There are no monsters or masks, just a marriage gone horribly wrong.
Something is going on here with the way people now are trying to represent and deal with these communal fears. It seems that extreme haunted houses and realistically scary movies have hit a chord, and our attempts to understand and master fear on a very intimate level prove more intense each year. Does staring a realistic representation of our fears in the eye and making it to the end of a haunted house do anything to help us understand the actual problems that inspired the scary roles actors play? The lighthearted, Halloween spirit of playing with the unknown is abandoned when the details become grittily specific to real life and turn people’s traumatic experiences into a form of firsthand entertainment. In order to understand our culture’s changing relationship with fear, we need to ask ourselves what made this trend possible. Equally important, what will happen if we continue to chip away at that protective barrier of the unreal, and how scary will our ‘imaginary’ monsters become?