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Scare tactics

Area theme parks work hard to find just the right frights for their guests. It can be fun and cathartic, especially in our post-9/11 world.

Published October 14, 2004

[Times photos: Chris Zuppa]
In Howl-O-Scream’s Chaos haunted house at Busch Gardens, the scary scenes blend into the psychedelic backdrop.

In the Mortuary house, Earl Holley plays the part of Mr. Grimm.   photo

Fake body parts hang in Busch Gardens’ Escape from Insanity: Lockdown haunted house.

TAMPA - If what most often scares people is the unknown, someone forgot to tell Megan Patterson.

The 16-year-old Zephyrhills High School student was in a brave group that recently tested the frequent frights at Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream attraction. After a first terrifying tour of Mortuary, a particularly haunted house, left her shaken and stirred, Patterson was persuaded to go through again. How hard could it be, now that she knew where all the ghouls were lying in wait?

"I thought it was scarier the second time," Patterson said. "The second time we were in front (of the group), so you didn't know what was in front of you."

The second time was enough for Patterson, who now says: "I do not go to haunted houses. I was really scared. I don't want to come back."

That's actually a compliment for Howl-O-Scream, because that's its job: It's supposed to be fun, sure, but most important, it has to be scary. Patterson notwithstanding, the reason this attraction becomes more popular year after year is that a lot of people love to be scared.

And Busch Gardens, which adds almost 1,000 temporary employees to put on Howl-O-Scream every year, makes a point of going for the jugular.

It sure worked on Patterson's pal Hannah Tait, 22, whose arm remained in Patterson's viselike grip throughout the tour. Said Tait: "She was my monster."

But Tait had a blast: "I was definitely scared, especially with that evil doctor with the blood all over him. But I think it's really fun. It's like an adrenaline rush."

The 2004 attraction boasts six haunted houses and four "scare zones" that attendees pass through while sneaky performers try to freak them out. The park also runs its six roller coasters in the dark for the event, which continues on Friday and Saturday evenings, and some additional nights, through Halloween.

Busch Gardens' marketing line for the 2004 edition: "No Escape. No Mercy. Nowhere Else."

Actually, you can escape, though it is a little hard to find the exit in the darkened park. As for "no mercy," that's hard to argue: Howl-O-Scream's performers go after you from the moment you enter the park, with stilt-walking spooks emerging suddenly from the fog.

As for "nowhere else" - well, not exactly. Theme park horrors are red-hot now. This is the fifth year for Howl-O-Scream. Universal's Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando is in its 13th year. That attraction has expanded this year to the Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks. Six Flags and other theme park chains boast similar scares across the nation.

A uniting theme: They're scary and not meant for the whole family. Forget those quaint, old-school monster icons such as Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. These fright fests are intended to unnerve, to upset, to keep you looking left to right and front to back, and then scare you from above and below.

But in 2004, isn't real life scary enough? Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Homeland Security Advisory System constantly reminds us of a continuous perceived threat. Presidential candidates never let us forget about evil empires with their chemical and nuclear weapons. Videos of beheadings populate Web sites. "Terror" has become a catch phrase for a relentless, shadowy enemy upon which we now wage war.

But such dangers are exactly why some people find comfort in "safe" scares such as haunted houses, scary movies and horror fiction. What's the odd zombie compared with a weapon of mass destruction?

David Skal is a culture critic who has written several books about horror as entertainment. He is a consultant for Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream.

"There is something quasitherapeutic about horror entertainment," Skal said during a recent visit to the park. "It lets people process anxieties that need to be processed.

"When you're under constant threat, when there's this unseen threat, it's like the old wax museums that had these grisly re-enactments of murders: There is some kind of resolution in the mind when you give a strong mental image to what's out there."

Risa Billeter is a co-producer of small independent films who also reviews horror and science fiction films and literature on Internet sites such as He said it is no coincidence that horror entertainment is blooming in post-9/11 America.

"You see it in Hollywood, with M. Night Shyamalan movies doing so well, with all audiences, not just the "genre' crowd," Billeter said, referring to the writer-director of the films The Sixth Sense, Signs and The Village.

"But really it's much broader than that. Even a little British zombie comedy like Shaun of the Dead is doing well. Before that was (the recent remake of) Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later. The American (version of) The Ring was a hit, (as was) Freddy vs. Jason.

"Of course, Stephen King still sells really well after, like, 100 books. And you have Anne Rice and even have someone like Laurell K. Hamilton, who writes this very genre-specific vampire-erotica-detective fiction, and it's being eaten up by (the mainstream) public."

Though the horror genre was popular well before the 21st century, Billeter said, "I really think it's getting more so, and it's going to get a lot, a lot bigger. And it's really going to touch on a lot of the stuff that you see going on today, the terror issues, the suicide bombings, the fear of (reinstating) the draft. As a parent, that's the stuff that scares me."

Horror movies have often reflected current cultural fears in metaphorical ways, said Skal, whose nonfiction books on the phenomenon include Death Takes a Holiday and The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.

"The Wolfman films were popular around World War II, and the wolf is a classic Teutonic symbol of war," he said. "The '60s had films about atomic mutations. Rosemary's Baby was very much about the Pill.

"I think now we'll see a repeat of what we saw in the Cold War in scary entertainment: the idea of the outsider, the imposter. Then it was about communism; now it's terrorism."

Anna Podolor doesn't care about that. The 26-year-old Plant City resident just likes to be scared. She has attended all five Howl-O-Screams and "at least seven or eight" Halloween Horror Nights. She gives Howl-O-Scream a slight nod over its Orlando competition, but she always goes to both.

"I don't know that it's a release of anything particular I'm scared of," Podolor said. "It's just something that really wakes you up, gets your heart pumping, makes you really aware of what's going on around you, a lot like roller coasters or bungee jumping. But I would never bungee jump. So I do this."

Despite all the frights she has seen, Podolor said she still gets scared at the horror attractions. "It's almost (scarier), actually, because you're anticipating them."

That's part of the idea, said Scott Swenson, Busch Gardens' supervisor of entertainment special projects.

"What scares someone is a very different experience for each person," he said. "So we use a lot of different things.

"But the best advice I can give to people is: Never let down your guard, because scares can come from everywhere, and they do. Our motto is: Show them no mercy. People ask me, "What if I don't want to get scared?' I tell them, "Come during the day."'

[Last modified October 13, 2004, 09:27:16]

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  • Cover story
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