Experience the Thrill of the Haunt

You duck through a doorway into a pitch-black room. After a few minutes of eerie silence, a floor board creaks to your left, followed by an icy blast of air in your face. Like a spooked cat, you feel the hair on the back of your neck bristle. Your palms sweat, your breath becomes shallow, your heart rate quickens as you wonder who – or what – is in there with you.

You ask why you pay money to subject yourself to this terror-inducing ordeal every year. And then you answer:

It’s the thrill of the haunt.

Psychology and haunted attraction industry experts, along with the patrons they entertain, reveal the most common reason people are lured by the multi-million-dollar haunt industry: They not only dig the adrenaline rush, but also they revel in their ability to “make it through.”

“It’s not that thrill-seekers enjoy being ‘scared,’ it’s really the feeling of mastery or accomplishment that comes with enduring each experience,” David Rudd, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Science at the University of Utah, said in an article provided by the Haunted Attractions Association.

“Terror gives us a chance to test ourselves, our own tolerance. We like the idea that we can get through it,” human behavior expert Margaret J. King told a reporter for an August U.S. News & World Report article on thrill-seekers.

An informal survey of a few Ohio Valley residents backs up the experts’ claims.

“I always try not to jump” or get spooked, said Clay Bethel of Martins Ferry, who makes an annual pilgrimage to Phantom Fright Nights at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh. He even tries to take it a step farther sometimes and “sneak up on the ghouls and make them jump.”

Kate Monroe of Wheeling said she loves going to the Dungeon of Horrors at the former West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville every year. It’s become a family tradition now that her daughter is a teenager and can come along.

“I walk right in the front and get really quiet. I try to stay quiet. It’s like a challenge to me,” Monroe said.

In the past 20 years, Halloween has become the second largest spending holiday of the year in America, with a National Retail Federation survey reporting adults will spend nearly $8 billion on candy, costumes and decorations this year. That figure doesn’t even include what people pay to get spooked by thriller films, haunted houses, haunted hikes, haunted theme parks, ghost tours – there’s even a haunted cruise scheduled for next year. The Ship of Fear Horror Cruise sails Oct. 28, 2013 from Miami hosted by “Fright Night” and “Child’s Play” director Tom Holland and featuring horror film screenings, costume parties and performances by legendary shock rocker Alice Cooper, among other events.

“Horror connects on that most fundamental level,” said Irwin Yablans, creator of the “Halloween” films that could be credited with scaring the breeches off an entire generation. “A truly frightening boogieman, a likeable protagonist and sympathetic victims puts audiences right in the shoes of the characters being chased,” said Yablans, who recently released an autobiography, “The Man Who Created Halloween.”

That’s exactly the feeling that the creative force behind the Wells Township Haunted House in Brilliant wants patrons to experience.

“It’s our job to make people believe they are the victim in a big budget Hollywood horror film,” said director Sean Norman. The multi-story red brick house that sits along Ohio 7 on the north end of town is an “old-school haunt,” Norman said, featuring guided tours through each room. The nonprofit house – started and still operated by Wells Township police officers, of which Norman is one – is staffed with 150 volunteers who perform as characters, operate lighting and sound, work at computers, control pneumatic effects, and scan the monitors of 40 cameras set up to to ensure everything runs smoothly and safely. (All ticket proceeds go toward funding the following year’s house, Norman said.)

“We have a 30-foot slide. … We know people don’t like to be moved and flipped and flopped, so we do that. … We have a room this year that’s like a carnival ride and they get strapped in. We have people who strap you in and make sure you are secure. … Ours is high-octane; it’s what sets us apart,” he said, adding optical illusions, misdirection, grotesque characters and horror-movie-style scenes all play a role.

Attendance at the Wells Township house has grown to rival the popular penitentiary haunt down the river. Both boast more than 10,000 visitors a year during the four to six weeks they are open. Norman said it’s possible neither would exist, however, if not for “the granddaddy of them all,” the Brooke Hills Spooktacular which started at Brooke Hills Park in Wellsburg more than two decades ago.

Both Brooke Hills – which is closed this year but is expected to open again in 2013 – and the penitentiary have instances of documented paranormal activity.

“Truly” haunted locations speak for themselves, according to those who have experienced them or work closely with them.

Don and Angela Feenerty of Martins Ferry conduct informal haunted walks for their friends around this time of year. At nightfall, they lead guests down a deserted road to a graveyard and use divining rods to “locate graves and other anomalies.” The dark woods and the many animal sounds rouse their fears, Don Feenerty said, which sets the tone for the main event.

“Most (of our guests) get very quiet. Some giggle nervously or speak a little louder than usual. The sounds get them first. The pull of the divining rods is undeniable and shouts of the supernatural. This part spooks most folks. They suddenly become aware that there is something out there that they can’t explain.”

Heidi Maness Hartwiger, an Ohio Valley native who now lives in York, Va., has been a guide for the Original Ghosts of Williamsburg Walking Tour for 17 years.

“Over the years, I have concluded, after hearing much from many people, that historic areas, especially battlegrounds areas, have many ghosts, poor souls who have not resolved issues on earth and can’t enter heaven until they have closure,” Hartwiger said.

People enjoy these haunted spots as “an escape from reality,” said the storyteller and author. “I think our tour-goers like to be tantalized by the unexplainable rather than frightened.”

Indeed, an experience outside of their ordinary lives is another common reason people enjoy such haunts.

“While being scared may not be a pleasant emotion for many, it can be fulfilling to simply experience a new thrilling sensation that is outside their usual routine,” according to the Haunted Attraction Association. It also can provide a cathartic effect, “offering you emotional release and escape from the real world of bills and mortgages and the economy and relationships,” said John Edward Campbell, media studies and production assistant professor at Temple University.

One final reason some people enjoy haunted houses, thriller films and the like, is because they are fascinated by the darker realm of existence.

“There’s a long history of people being intensely curious about the ‘dark side’ and trying to make sense of it,” said Temple University psychologist Frank Farley.

Hartwiger said as a tour guide she has personally experienced supernatural events.

“I would not do the tour if it scared me. Having said that, about 10 years ago I started seeing a ghost,” she said. The ghost is a female dressed in servant’s clothes who stands at the door of the George Wythe house and then disappears through the closed door.

While that ghost is benign, another ghost she encountered once was not. “A couple of years ago while I was giving a tour, I received a shove so hard it knocked me down. I was OK, but all the glass in my lantern shattered. No one was around me. The people were scared and I was startled.” She found out later that the location was a known haunt of an abused and humiliated slave.

“You better believe I had a good talk with God about all this. I do say a prayer of protection for me and my tour each time I go out,” Hartwiger said.