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Extreme Halloween: Has It All Gone Too Far?

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"I was told to lie down. A man strapped me down and placed a cushion over my face... he then climbed on top of me and held the cushion down so I was really struggling to breathe... I was then chased out of the room with a man holding a chainsaw... I was petrified."

This is not the horrific account of some terrible attack on a hapless victim, but a report of a young woman's Halloween 'experience' (Daily Mail 17 October 2013) at a seasonal attraction called Scare Kingdom in Lancashire. Visitors actually pay for this Halloween 'fun' that is so scary that they are given a 'safe word' in case things get too much. And this sort of experience is by no means unique; the entire country seems to be awash, at this time of year, with 'attractions' that would not be out of place on the set of a horror movie as each venue vies to provide the most 'chilling' Halloween experience.

A quick Google of Halloween venues reveals a multitude of attractions with names such as 'fright night', 'farmaggedon', 'the morgue', 'field of screams','slasher' (featuring a man who 'skinned men and boiled women'), 'screamfest' and 'atmosFEAR'. Their aims? As one such attraction so charmingly puts it, to leave the visitor 'shocked and sickened'.

These modern-day attractions are not to be confused with the traditional haunted house of yesteryear. These are extreme versions, not for the faint-hearted, and designed to instil real terror. They usually involve live actors, gruesome visuals and special effects - some really are like appearing in your own horror movie. I remember one student of mine, a strapping lass of 22, who visited a scare attraction one Halloween in Lancashire, being so terrified that she was unable to be alone for weeks afterwards.

And, it's not just attractions that are getting ever more extreme at Halloween; so are the fancy dress outfits. Pumpkins, ghosts, spiders and witches are only for the little ones these days. Older kids (and adults) are offered a bewildering array of truly horrific garb such as 'psycho ward' (which Tesco and Asda were forced to drop after complaints from mental health charities), evil doctors and zombies - all covered in blood, guts and gore. You can, if you are so inclined, buy severed hands and realistic fake blood in hospital drip bags. One man created a Halloween display for his garden, complete with a realistic fake corpse, that was so horrific that he was asked to 'tone it down' by police (BBC News 17 October 2013). Even a advert for a Halloween event on a bus, featuring a 'zombie girl', has been criticised for being too scary (Huffington Post 22 October 2013).

How has Halloween, that traditional time for trick or treating, come to this? Are our lives so dull and boring, that we crave such exciting, even depraved, thrills to liven things up? These Halloween experiences offer the same thing as fast fairground rides and horror movies do; the opportunity to experience an adrenalin rush (caused by shock and fear) in a relatively safe setting. It has traditionally been assumed that this adrenalin rush creates excitement that is craved by some people - or that the relief afterwards creates a euphoric high that is addictive. Yet a study by Eduardo Andrade (University of California, Berkeley) and Joel B. Cohen (University of Florida) published in the Journal of Consumer Research (2007), suggests that some people just enjoy being afraid. And, what they enjoy most is uncertainty, suspense, unpredictability and the unknown - all the factors that extreme Halloween attractions utilise to the full.

I don't think the rise in extreme Halloweenism is as benign as some make out. Novelty is a big factor in fuelling fear, so attractions need to find ever more creative ways to scare their paying guests. Like everything, we habituate to stimuli, so what is scary this year, will no longer hold the same fear next year. Thus Halloween is likely to only get more scarier, more gruesome and more depraved as attractions attempt to draw in ever-more more blasé 'been there, scared there' punters. If it hasn't all gone too far already, I fear that it soon will, with people being seriously injured (if not physically, then mentally) at one of these 'scarefests'.

Of course, it could be argued that the reason that so many people enjoy being scared so much these days is that we don't really have anything real to be scared about anymore. Most of us are, thankfully, far removed these days from the unpredictability of bombs, war and attack - so we rarely get to experience the fear emotion for real. I suspect that if we did, not many of us would want to revisit this at Halloween time. I bet the female victim who was held down then chased by the chainsaw man in the opening quote won't.

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