BBC News

The rise of the Halloween haunted house

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News, Washington


For millions of people, no Halloween would be complete without a visit to a haunted house, another element in a seasonal industry that appears to be defying the recession. But what makes people pay good money to be scared out of their wits?

"It's the adrenaline rush. That's what I get out of it."

Joan Kimmett and her family have just been chased by a chainsaw-wielding psychopath.

Before that they had to run the gauntlet of screaming inmates at an out-of-control asylum.

They couldn't be happier. Struggling through the mud on a freezing October evening, as they head back to the car, they feel that $30 (£19) each for an hour inside Bennett's Curse - billed as Maryland and District of Columbia's "best haunted house" - was money well spent.

Matt Neumann, visiting the Curse with his girlfriend Andrea Smith, is less sure. "It was pretty good, " he says. "I have been to other ones that weren't as good. I would give it an eight or a nine. If it was a bit scarier it would be better value."

These people know their frights. But then Halloween has always been a big deal in the US - Americans spend $1.8bn (£1.1bn) on costumes alone - and a visit to one of more than 2,000 haunted houses around the country is increasingly part of it.

Haunted houses began in the 1970s at charity events and have since grown into a $500m (£312m) a year industry.

They are neither haunted nor, in most cases, houses but large hangars in which visitors walk through a series of horror film-style scenarios, while actors in zombie or vampire costumes attempt to scare the living daylights out of them.

Allan Bennett, owner of the eponymous Curse, employs up to 50 actors - many of them college students or office workers who get a kick out of scaring people - for the two months of the year his attraction is open.

"I love scaring people and I still consider myself a scare actor as much as a haunt owner," says the former computer scientist, who runs the attraction with wife Jill.

image captionThe scarier the better, says Matt Neumann

With its animatronic monsters and 3D effects, the Bennett's haunt - to use the industry jargon - feels more like the set of a horror film than a traditional fairground haunted castle or ghost train.

The actors are banned from saying "boo" because, Mr Bennett explains, "anybody can jump out from behind a curtain and shout 'boo'". But most try variations on that theme as they sneak up on you in the gloom.

"Get out!" yells one particularly inventive harpie, as we shuffle nervously past her lair, dodging the severed heads hanging from the ceiling.

Others opt for a more generic groan, as they leer out of the darkness at you or suddenly appear at your side muttering foul curses.

Mr Bennett, who is on the board of the Haunted House Association, believes the Halloween industry is "as close as you can come to being immune to the economy," even though takings are down slightly this year.

"People need a release. They need to get their mind off their troubles. It is a great way to forget about reality."

And he predicts that "the whole haunted house idea and the Halloween celebration are going to be huge in Europe some time in the near future. "The association has had a lot of interest from European companies."

In fact, haunted houses are already springing up across the UK.

image captionAre scares good for us?

"It has taken off in the last seven or eight years," says Matt Page, whose Warwickshire-based company Area 51 designs interactive "walk-throughs" and creates the sets for Jonathan Ross's annual Halloween party, among other things.

"The nice thing about Halloween is that is a bit twisted and dark. People love being scared. They crave excitement."

But it has to be the right kind of fear.

"It is very important to experience emotion and the most powerful emotion you can have - the one that leads to the greatest arousal - is a feeling of fear", says psychologist Dr Christian Grillon, of the National Institute of Mental Health, in Bethesda, Maryland.

"But the thing that is most scary to us is unpredictability. When you don't know when something bad is going to happen."

The trick the Halloween industry pulls off, he says, is to make people feel scared "in the context of safety".

Haunted houses are "a way of experiencing some strong emotions while still having some control over your life".

And this has particular resonance in the current economic climate, he argues.

"A lot of people are not too in control of their life at the moment. This offers a release. It is much less scary than going into work and not knowing if you are going to be fired."

For all its elaborate special effects, the part of Bennetts Curse that seems to scare people the most comes towards the end, when you enter a pitch dark room. Mild panic sets in as people grab on to strangers and fumble for the exit.

"I didn't scream but I was terrified," says Andrea Smith. "It was horrible," she adds with a smile.