6 Psychology Lessons You Learn Scaring Kids for a Living

I've been working at a haunted Halloween trail for the past three years. If you're unsure of what that is, just imagine a haunted house designed exclusively for the kind of people who sometimes offer up hiking as a possible fun activity. Some cultures refer to these people as "psychopaths."

It's definitely not a fun job by any stretch of the imagination, but the experience has imparted me with a particular kind of knowledge. To put it plainly, I know a thing or two about scaring your kids.

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It's fine, you'll fix them later.

Wait. Scratch that. As someone who's worked at a haunted Halloween trail for the past three years, I've developed an ear for the screams of youth.

Hold on. Forget I said that. As someone who's worked at a haunted Halloween trail for the past three years, there is no bliss more intense for me than the bliss caused by the look of fear in a child's eyes.

Scaring people on a dark path seems like it would be easy. You simply let things get quiet for a bit, and then suddenly make it loud, like in Paranormal Activity movies, or pity sex. However, it's a surprisingly delicate process to keep a haunted trail running efficiently, and there are a few more important details involved than "Step 1: Boo. Step 2: Repeat Step 1." In fact, most of the challenges are purely mental. For example ...

#6. Teenagers Are Waiting to Not Be Scared

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In a perfect world, the people going to your haunted trail would be the cast of the original House on Haunted Hill, multiplied by about a million. They'd come in unaware, have a few fake skeletons dropped around them, and run away screeching in terror. Hell, sometimes I'd even take the cast of the House on Haunted Hill remake, who would come in, become infinitely annoyed with Chris Kattan, and leave baffled and unwilling to star in the sequel. But the thing about dreams is they're just that, unfortunately.

While you do get your fair share of kids and adults, the most troubling demographic that shows up is teenagers. They've aged out of trick-or-treating and aren't ready to turn everything into a drinking game like proper young adults, so they're left with either watching movies or going on haunted trails, apparently. If there is a third option available, I certainly wasn't invited to it. Teens are also fiercely terrified of letting that facade of impenetrable coolness slip, which is the exact opposite of what needs to happen in a forest full of people hiding behind trees and fake gravestones.

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"Of course someone's buried here, it says RIP, doesn't it?"

A huge part of middle school and high school is trying on different identities, with the hope of gaining acceptance through one of them. Unfortunately for the world, 99 percent of those identities are some form of douchebag. This brand of insane self-awareness spells doom for those who work the trail, because teens know that the moment they drop their poise to show the slightest hint of weakness, a group of their friends is going to rip their letterman off and then tell the whole girls locker room about their penis size. They also understand, through years of movies based around the concept of "It's like Halloween, but with a scythe!" that when the volume goes down, the shit is about to as well.

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For the record, this is a scythe, kids.

There is no one way to scare a teenager, so you're left just throwing ghouls at a wall and seeing what sticks. As they've been so conditioned to the usual tropes, the best approach is a specially timed assault, with the idea that you can catch them in that sweet spot when they're momentarily too distracted to remember to raise their shields of braggadocio. In other words, just catch them while they're texting. That way, you'll be able to get a more satisfying reaction than, "Sweet mask, bro. I bet your boyfriend was terrified. Also, something about your mom."

#5. Kids Will Sabotage the Enjoyment of Other Kids

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The instruction booklet for child etiquette is very short, and it's mostly based around preventing them from saying "fuck" too early and getting them to not sling food everywhere. When kids are in a group on Halloween, one of the few nights during the year when they can, as rapper Big Sean said, "Go stupid," this etiquette is hard to maintain. Kids are also, and often unintentionally, huge jerks, as anyone who's been through elementary school can tell you, and as such are perfectly willing to kill any vibes that come their way at the expense of the enjoyment of other kids.

One of the most consistently used themes in the histories of humor and horror is "Kids say the darndest things," whether those things be frighteningly accurate statements about their parents' intimate lives or blunt reports that a house is possessed with demons.

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And sometimes they're right.

Another subset in the "darndest things" category is innocently pointing out observations of the world around them and then proceeding to do it again for six more years. On haunted trails, where there is a lot to be noticed, this can hamper the results, because, once they've spotted something that seems suspicious, like the hint that a person is about to jump out, they're going to broadcast it to everyone around them. Then, the performer has no choice but to halfheartedly leap forward, yell, and long for a day that all kids have terrible peripheral vision.

Along with lice, kids love to spread boredom to their peers. If an older one isn't having fun, they'll usually announce it frankly with a, "This is boooorrrring." Then, to nail it home, they'll pass around the rumor that this whole thing is boooorrrring to the other kids. Soon, you have a whole herd who can't focus on the trail because of the overwhelming presence of all these recent allegations of boredom. If scientists actually want to research the way that things spread among dense populations, they should start with a group of 5-year-olds, give those kids something that 5-year-olds enjoy, and then drop a 10-year-old into the mix. Boom. Come get some, Ebola, you punk asshat.

#4. Coordinating While Wearing Costumes Is Stupidly Difficult

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Trying to terrify people when you're wearing your normal attire is harassment and is usually frowned upon. If you dress up in zombie makeup, put up a sign, and charge admission, it's perfectly OK. The success of your project often hinges on the effectiveness of the costumes, but, if you're buying cheaply, as the trail I work on had to, you recognize that these costumes are within an inch of falling apart from the second that you look at them in the store and decide that you're smart enough to handle whatever the word "adhesive" means.

My face is an arbitrary combination of Gollum and ex-boyfriend, but it isn't very frightening. So, whatever role I dress up for usually includes a lot of makeup and a few latex scars/features. I use my mouth to do all mah screamin' and spookin' with, and, inevitably, some of the latex covers the parts of my face that need to move. And when you bought the latex cheek slash for $8.99 from the one store in the mall that opens up in October to sell Halloween merchandise and then evaporates into nothingness on Nov. 1 ...

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You know the one.

... all the exaggerated facial movements will detach that knife-wound from the side of your head. You begin taking into account things that you never thought you'd have to, like, "What's the minimal amount that I can open my mouth but still be loud and scary? What's the most economical way to produce fear?"

This also applies to any conversations you may need to have about planning or organizing the trail while in the midst of things. If you're wearing a giant mask, everything you say will be muffled and borderline unintelligible. To prevent the fake scars from falling off and floating away into the crisp autumn night, you reduce talking to a minimum and let the people you're working with know of your ambitions through a series of pointing and monosyllabic words. A haunted trail team meeting is just Dawn of the Planet of the Apes without a Gary Oldman.

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Daniel Dockery

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