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'People are harder to scare ... numbed'

Even traditional costumes are getting darker — and bloodier — in our gore-saturated culture.

By ABHA BHATTARAI
Published October 28, 2006


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photo
[Times photo: Luis Santana]
Busch Gardens pushes to put the scream in Howl-O-Scream, where a spokesman says they ask, "Is this scary enough?"

Freddy Krueger and Jason terrorized movie audiences in the ’80s, but to 13-year-old Patrick Zimmerman, they’re a joke.

Sure, people got murdered, but that’s too predictable.

“It was just a killer hiding behind a door,” the St. Petersburg teen said. “There’s nothing scary about that. It just makes me laugh.”

Not that he can’t be scared. The teen found Saw III, with a lineup of characters trapped in lethal nerve gas, plenty frightening.

These days it takes much more than blood and murder to shock and scare audiences, the result, experts say, of being bombarded with violent images and gory plots in video games, television shows and movies.

So filmmakers, haunted house creators and trick-or-treaters say they feel the pressure to amp up the scare factor.

This year’s Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream commercials end with blood splatters. One of the most popular Halloween novelties this year is bloody body parts in a bag.

And at Muvico BayWalk in St. Petersburg, the three horror movies showing this weekend each offers its own brand of gore.

“Forty years ago, it was black and white TV and a couple of monsters,” said Busch Gardens spokesman Gerard Hoeppner. “Now we have to look at things and say, 'Where can we add a new scare? Is this scary enough? Can we ramp this up?’”

That gore and violence also determines what people find scary, said T.J. Mannarino, director of art and design at Universal Studios in Orlando.

At Halloween Horror Nights, Mannarino and his team have replaced Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers with “strange, erotic images” like the ones in The Ring, and zombielike characters from Dawn of the Dead.

“People are harder to scare,” said Leonard Pickel, a consultant for the haunted house industry. “They’re numbed by the violence on TV and the things happening in the world around them.”

At Features Costume Inc. in St. Petersburg, Jason, Freddy Krueger and Texas Chainsaw Massacre costumes still are among this year’s biggest sellers.

“The little boys seem to want to butcher and kill everything in sight,” store manager Ross Vanderloop said.

What’s new this year is that little girls want in on the action, too.

“They’re not afraid to put on Jason or Freddy Krueger masks and run around scaring their moms,” Vanderloop said.

Even traditional costumes have become edgier: gothic princesses, devil brides and zombie doctors.

It’s only natural that “we’re seeing a bloody spillover to Halloween costumes,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University.

“If CSI, the No. 1 show on television, shows bullets ripping through people’s flesh, should we really be surprised?”
Children are emulating “a level of gore and violence in movies they’re not even old enough to see,” he said.

Eight-year-old Ethan Grepper admits he hasn’t seen that many horror movies (his mom won’t let him), but he knows he wants to be “something really scary” for Halloween.

He looked through the skeletons at Vanderloop’s shop Thursday and settled on a Crypt Master costume, a black cloak with chains and metal studs.

“What kind of weapon do you want?” his mother asked as they moved toward a big display of knives and swords.

Karen Wilson, a St. Petersburg mother of three, said she tries to steer her kids away from scary costumes.

“I believe in celebrating Halloween, but it’s really getting out of hand,” she said.

She also limits what they watch.

“If kids see violence on TV, they’re going to end up doing what they’ve been programmed to do.”

Courtney Fields, 12, tries to censor herself, avoiding violent TV shows and scary movies. But, she said, gore is becoming inescapable.

A couple of nights ago, she heard a radio commercial for Halloween Horror Nights as she was drifting to sleep.

“It was really creepy,” the seventh-grader said. “I just rolled over and told myself to quickly go to sleep before another scary one came on.”

Abha Bhattarai can be reached at abhattarai@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2376.

[Last modified October 28, 2006, 19:29:30]


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