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Lesley Bannatyne Articles



Extreme Halloween

c. Lesley Bannatyne 2001

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Lesley Bannatyne

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"Corpses for Sale. Choose your own hair and skin color, as well as the degree of decay. " I couldn't resist. I clicked. Not only will you find corpses in varying degrees of decay at www.corpsesforsale.com (as well as with fillings in the teeth and realistic nostril cavities) but "a common household fly authentically reproduced down to the veins in the wings complete with optical nerve and pool of blood."

Female corpses, by the way, come with their own false eyelashes and jewelry.

There's not too much you can't get when it comes to Halloween props: cold lasagna wind-pipes gave way long ago to items like the Colorado-based Distortions Unlimited's "Electric Chair," a life-size model of a man writhing in an electric chair, complete with special effects. The crowds who clamor for more intense haunted attractions demand this level of graphic gore: mostly 12- to 24-year olds and surprisingly often, more women than men. The horror props industry--barely extant in the 70s--shows no signs of getting any less sophisticated; each new season brings more intense visuals, unique tortures and real-life, blood-pumping, it's-gonna-get-me scares. Extreme Halloween seems here to stay.

And why not? If adults who grew up in the 50s and 60s have preserved trick or treating to honor Halloween, those who grew up in the 70s with heavy metal, slasher movies and the fear of razor blades in their apples just might feel a bit of nostalgia for the creepier Halloween of their youths. As adults they populate the dark attractions industry, supplying Halloween to many of us in the form of haunted entertainments, costumes, gory decorations and realistic effects.

Not that all Extreme Halloweeners were teens in the 70s--they come in all ages and types. Graphic gore and those who both purvey it and love it have been around forever. Remember being grossed out by Atreus feasting on his own children or Oedipus gouging out his eyes? who among us isn't transfixed by the idea of Marie Antoinette's head rolling into a barrel or the endless stream of TV photos of Nicole Simpson's bloody neck? We rarely look away.

But the level of detail has changed. The industry can and does produce vivid experiences that engage the audience more than ever before. "By creating a set with a level of detail that's believable and starting with a plausible situation, you can take patrons step by step into insanity," says Leonard Pickel, veteran haunt designer.

And each year, the bar inches up a notch. The more sophisticated the industry gets, the more sophisticated audiences get, and it takes that much more to shock or thrill. After all, there's a whole generation who cut their teeth on The Exorcist rather than The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. People want--and get--more visceral thrills from their entertainment. The appetite for intense physicality is changing the nature of dark attractions, thrill rides and now, even Halloween.

But Extreme Halloween isn't just about violent images or dripping bodily fluids --you can see all that in a movie. And, it's not just about spectacle, although you can't deny it's a kick to see an actor hurtling through the air on a bungee cord (House of Shock) or an actress (Mouse Girl) with seemingly hundreds of rodents crawling all over her body (Spooky World, Massachusetts). What is it that makes lines wrap around the block for the dark, darker and darkest attractions coast to coast?

"As far as sophistication," says Ricky Dick of Castle Blood, "yes, people see better and better effects in theaters everyday. How do we compete with our rubber spider on a string? The only thing that saves us is that the spider on the screen can't jump out and really touch you."

Real, bonafide contact.

Kim Yates agrees: "At Kim's Krypt (Baltimore) you don't know what is real and what is not--what's lurking around the corner, what's behind the bush, on the roof, under the bed, or even in the car with you. That's right. Sometimes we follow the customers to their car and get in."

They want something you can feel, smell, sense. Something more visceral. Like Six Flag's Brutal Planet-style sensory assualt. Or the crunching of bugs underfoot at Universal Studios "The Mummy" (Halloween Horror Nights III).

It happens in home haunts too. Charles and Terry Brown of Cambridge, Massachusetts used to decorate their tiny yard on Huron Avenue with tombstones and dummies. But not until they added their daughter dressed as a witch stirring cauldron full of dry ice did crowds of trick or treaters increase from about 50 to 300. They turned a decorated yard into a stage set and added the element of performance. That's what people flock to: the chance that something unpredicatable could happen. The adventure. But, of course, to have an adventure, there has to be a scary part.

Why do people like to terrify themselves?

"It's like boot camp for the psyche," says film director Wes Craven (Scream) in an interview with David Blum in the New York Times (10/30/99). "In real life, human beings are packaged in the flimsiest of packages, threatened by real and sometimes horrifying dangers, events like Columbine. But the narrative form puts those fears into a manageable series of events. It give us a way of thinking rationally about our fears."

Extreme Halloween as catharsis? Maybe.

When you provoke anxiety, psychologists say, you learn that it doesn't hurt, and are less afraid in general. It's the luxury of being safe and being scared at the same time. As soon as it gets real, it's not even slightly fun. So it's not that we love actual death and gore, it's that we love the visceral reaction it gives. Fear produces an adrenaline rush; mix it with desire and you begin to understand why Scream is a date movie.

There are a few more elements of Extreme Halloween that are worth thinking about. Although many people enjoy the adrenaline rush of fear, very few choose to go through an intense Halloween attraction alone. Group terror is a way to connect with people no matter how temporary the bond: kind of like a rave but with no drugs and a lot more screaming. Creators of Extreme Halloween events are constantly looking for new ways to hook their audiences and interactive techniques like paint ball and laser tag are creeping into the mix.

Lastly, Extreme Halloween has got to be at least partly about rebellion. Halloween is the only holiday we have left that even remotely up-ends the world order; and it's certainly the best rebel holiday we have. It pits kids against adults; it's associated with heavy metal music and Satan; plus it happens after dark and is associated with anarchy. Of course it gets scapegoated: the teens are out of control, it scares the children, it's dangerous. In a never ending series of maneuvers to place blame, Halloween takes the rap for violent kids, Godlessness, and vandalism. Extreme Halloween creators fight back by taking it over the top into an in-your-face Halloween experience. "You think we're scary? I'll show you scary."

Is Extreme Halloween market driven or culture driven? Latest money maker or response to the dumbing down of terror? Giant orange and black mosh pit waiting to happen, as Ricky Dick would say, or annualized ritualistic purging of fear? My guess is all of the above in varying degrees depending on what line you're standing in.

Those who enjoy the most intense parts of Halloween find in Extreme Halloween an unspoken bond. They meet at Halloween haunts, parties and hayrides coast to coast, drawn together by secret pleasures: we like corpses and tarantulas, fangs and fake blood. And this is our night.

Turn up the volume. Cue the rats.



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