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Halloween 2003 – What Scares Us
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“When you gaze long into the Abyss, the Abyss also gazes into you." -Friedrich Nietzsche

When I was about four years old, my family and I lived in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. My bedroom had dark wood paneling and maroon carpet, and a reproduction of an old-style telephone hung on the wall opposite my bed, with the horn-like microphone you speak into mounted on the front, the listening device hanging from a string on the side, and two bells mounted above the mouthpiece. When I went to bed at dusk, there was just enough light to make everything in my room lose its color — the Irish call this brief period of day "the gloaming." Just before the last hopes of daylight left my bedroom, that phone became a face — the long mouthpiece was the protruding snout, and the two bells were the dark eyes of the boxy-headed monster. Every night I stared at the phone, and every night it scared the hell out of me when it came "alive" — trying to leap out from my wall.

For my Halloween special this year, I wanted to examine what scares us. What is this sense of fear inside all of us, and why do we love to exploit it with scary movies, books, and haunted Halloween fun houses?

For a better understanding of fear and our human reaction to it, I spoke with my sister, Susan Belanger, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist who practices behavioral psychology. I asked her what fear is, and she said, "There’s a twofold aspect to fear. There’s a cognitive emotional side — a head side — then there’s the biological response side." 

Dr. Belanger gave the example of a stimulus such as a snake. The snake itself is neither good nor bad, positive nor negative — but if someone has a phobia against snakes, the mere presence of that stimulus will produce genuine fear. 

What about the physiological signs of fear? Dr. Belanger said, "Your heart rate increases, there’s a rush of adrenaline, some people can get sweaty palms, breathe heavy — it’s all this nervous system response that accompanies fear. Fear can also be adaptive. Your senses are heightened, you become hyper-alert — the smallest noise can make you jump or flinch. If there is danger present, the adaptive element of fear can save your life."

So fear is necessary, but it’s also not a very desirable emotion. Yet we sometimes like to stimulate ourselves with frightening imagery.

Horror writers have the ability to tap into our fear and make us suspend our disbelief just long enough to elevate our heart rates, heighten our senses, and raise the hair on our necks. I asked horror author Tamara Thorne what scares us. Thorne said, "There are things that exist in the dark that aren’t there in the light. Carlos Castaneda said something along those lines in one of his books, and it struck me as one of the prime aspects of the true nature of fear. No matter what our intellect tells us, our inner cavemen know this is true, so we will always carry a fear of the unseen and of the dark itself on some instinctive level. We can’t help it; it’s in our wiring and it keeps us safe. But it also fuels our imagination and helps us see and hear things that may or may not be lurking in the shadows. And, of course, when that darkling thing pops out and scares the snot out of you, that’s scary too — but it’s nothing compared to the anticipation and apprehension your own imagination creates."

Anticipation and imagination are everything — Alfred Hitchcock was a master of this horror technique, and almost every horror writer in the business has borrowed from him. You know the scene all too well: The killer is waiting at the top of the stairs for the woman who just came home to her curiously quiet and empty home. She’s nervous — something seems amiss, but it must be her imagination. She thinks she hears something upstairs, so she slowly ascends the steps. We all know the killer is waiting for her, and our pulse quickens with every step she takes. As she nears the top — BRRING! BRRING! The telephone makes the woman, and the audience, recoil with fear! Then the woman and the audience calm down, even laugh — because it’s just the telephone. Just as we relax, the killer leaps out, we jump out of our seats, and popcorn flies everywhere. We knew it was coming and they got us anyway… they got us good. 

Why do we love to be scared? Why do we sometimes even pay money to be scared? Dr. Belanger said, "It’s all about mastery motivation. People are motivated to master a situation because it feels good. In a situation where you go to a horror movie, you know you’re safe in the grand scheme of things. The body’s response to fear is an adrenaline rush — it’s a natural, safe high. The horror movie or roller coaster doesn’t have the cognitive aspect of the unknown, where you’re really scared out of your mind and you’re not enjoying the situation."

Halloween haunted fun houses take all of the fear-causing elements and bring them together under one roof. Ghostvillage.com’s own message board moderator, Darci Faiello, is the Volunteer Coordinator for "Terrors By the Lake" — a haunted house located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s North Park and run by Western Pennsylvania Children’s Charities, Inc. Faiello has been volunteering at the haunted house for the last six years and has seen many thrill-seekers come through the door for the Halloween season. Faiello said, "Different things scare different people. The other night I had to walk a teenage guy out of the house because he was crying, cowering in the corner of the hallway because a clown ran by him. This is a clown that skips around handing out lollipops, and I have to say we have more people scared of a clown than we have of blood, guts, and gore.

"I think most people are afraid of normal, everyday things. Years ago, when we did the Jason hockey masks and the Scream masks, people laughed at them. There’s a theme to the house now called "Night Terrors" — it’s about the monsters that you dream of in your nightmares. You take that and you magnify it, and that’s what people are afraid of more than anything."

Halloween brings the idea of monsters, ghosts, and creepy-crawly things into the forefront of our psyches. We have fear year-round — whether it’s fear of the unknown, fear of snakes, fear of old-fashioned telephones in low light, or whatever our unique phobias may be. There are monsters in the dark abyss of our own imaginations — at Halloween, we just tend to gaze a little longer at them.

Happy Halloween!

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